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My new video: On Anti-SJWs and the YouTube "Skeptic" Community.

This has been a long time coming. Enjoy, subscribe, and share.

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  • Reading: The Lessons of History (Will Durant)
In the era of "fake news," "post-truth," and "alternative facts," where political narratives supersede facts and political polarization has reached a generational high, staying properly informed is more important than ever, and more precarious. Humanity has never enjoyed such access to information as we now have, nor the breadth of information available, and yet, it seems to have paradoxically become more difficult to maintain a handle on the facts.  This is not an exploration of how or why we have arrived at this state of affairs. Rather this is a brief guide on how best to navigate through the current political and media landscape in order to avoid inaccuracies and extreme bias, and to challenge and temper your own understanding.

The difference between opinion columns and news reporting

Most news-related publications have several different types of articles. Two common ones are opinion columns and news reports.  Opinions columns, which include editorials and op-eds, are articles reflecting the opinions and analysis of the author(s). They offer commentary on the news, but are not - and should not be consumed in lieu of - the news itself. Actual news report articles outline the facts of a given event or development.  Opinion pieces read like essays, news reports like a cut-and-dry laying out of facts as they are reported.

This is an example of a news report.  This is an example of an opinion piece.  Both cover the same general event, and yet there is a fundamental difference. One reports facts, the other comments on them.

A common mistake in news gathering is the consumption of opinion pieces as the primary source of information. In doing so, one is exposed to the slant and bias of the author simultaneously to the exposure to the news itself, which will influence the way one thinks about the news. Consuming the reports first allows one to acquire the facts without most of the bias, and thereby formulate a more objective picture of events. Another mistake is made in evaluating the veracity of a news source's reporting on the basis of an opinion column one finds disagreeable. Some media outlets it aim for balance in their opinion section by having writers from differing sides of an issue both weigh write respective articles. Other outlets are generally known to lean one way or the other, and for their opinion columns to be one-sided. If an outlet gives voice to truly beyond-the-pale views in their opinion columns, it is reasonable to have doubts as to the judgement or integrity of the publication, which may extend beyond the columns and to the reporting itself. Short of that, the the quality of an outlet's news reporting should be evaluated on the basis of its veracity, not whether one agrees with the opinion columns that outlet also publishes.

Worryingly, a growing number of people, particularly young people, get their news from comedy news shows, blogs, or Youtubers. As with opinion columns, op-eds, and editorials, these are opinion pieces, not news reporting. Some media outlets do have Youtube channels where they post short clips of actual news reports, and there is the occasional blog that does a decent job of simply reporting the facts without commentary or slant and sources everything. By and large, however, getting one's news from these venues is no different than only reading the opinion column, with the difference that the columnists are generally more experienced, educated, and knowledgeable than their Youtube and blogging counterparts. The traditional media - known sometimes as legacy media or old media - is not without its major flaws; click-bait profit motive, corporate advertiser influence, and the prioritization of access over accountability being chief among them. It is important however to bear in mind that new media, or independent media, is flawed as well. They generally lack the resources to do actual reporting, rendering them almost exclusively news commentary platforms. In many cases, without an editor or boss to answer to, and without a prestigious reputation to upload, many bloggers and youtubers are not obligated to maintain journalistic integrity or ethical standards, and often don't. For far too many people, seemingly the only criteria for where best to get their news is that it tells them what they want to hear, or confirms the narratives they subscribe to. You do yourself no favors by replacing the role of news reporting with propaganda, regardless of whether you agree with it.

Fake news

Fake news denotes articles or reports which which are either partly or entirely fictitious. Fake news is nothing new, but the advent of social media, along with the erosion of media literacy - the ability to determine legitimate news from satire or fabrication - had made the public more susceptible to falling for it. Most fake news is shared and popularized through social media - Facebook in particular (as though one needed another reason to stay off that platform) - and through chain e-mails.  Dealing with the latter first, there is generally very little of value to be found in chain e-mails, and the stereotype of their propagation by thousands of proverbial racist uncles is well-earned. You would do well to opt-out of or delete chain e-mails, but should you choose to receive and read them, believe literally nothing contained therein without verifying it yourself. When navigating social media, and Facebook specifically, always check the source of any news article shared. If you haven't heard of it, take a moment and do a web search. You will have your answer in less than a minute, and no results is an answer; it usually means it's bogus. It is a sad reflection on the direction of society that most people get their news from social media, however, it can be done. Every news source has a page or account on most major social media platforms. You can add these sources to your subscription feed and get news articles interspersed along with the other content. You will however get a more thorough experience using news gathering applications or visiting news sites directly.

The difference between fake news and biased news

There is currently a frustrating trend of people - up to and including the President of the United States - labelling opinion columns they disagree with, or news reports which publish facts they don't like, or reports which are biased, as fake news. Do not make this mistake. This is the equivalent of sticking one's head in the sand, and furthering this trend by crying wolf every time you see an article you don't like only contributes to media illiteracy. There are sometimes mistakes made, or inaccuracies in reporting, or bias. That does not - in and of itself - make something fake news. It is important to recognize this distinction.

The importance of gathering news from a plurality of sources

When consuming news, variety is key.  Do not rely too heavily upon a one or small handful of news outlets.  Drawing from a large pool of sources will allow you to more effectively identify and parse biases, and to get a more thorough and complete picture of current events. If every single source is covering something extensively, that tells you something about it. If another story is only being covered by a few outlets, that too is relevant information  In comparing and contrasting the coverage, you will learn more about the stories themselves, as well as the bias, objectivity, and veracity of the sources.  Do this with opinion pieces as well, and resist the urge to read only columns that you agree with. Challenge your views, and make it a point to properly understand other points of view. To do otherwise runs the risk of being trapped in an ideological echo chamber, where your views, understanding, and perspective can stagnate.

How much bias is too much?

Bias is, to one degree or another, unavoidable. We are humans; we have emotions, we have opinions, we have values, and these things cannot be absolutely suppressed when doing any job, journalism included. Some news outlets make an admirable effort to maintain neutrality, while others lean to one side or another. So long as you are consuming a good variety of sources, there is nothing wrong with some of them being biased, as they will be balanced out by other sources. Some outlets, however, have extreme levels of bias, which usually manifests a few ways. These outlets are not merely trying to report, repackage, or commentate on current events, rather they have specific political narratives that they want to push, and they mold the stories they cover (and which they omit), as well as the way in which they are covered, so as to fit that narrative. In short, they behave less like a news organization, and more like an activist group using confirmation bias to cherrypick only what they feel suits their cause (or what they feel can be adequately spun to those ends). This lack of intellectual honesty and journalistic integrity makes these outlets untrustworthy as a source of reliable information.

Cynics may say that all news outlets do this, not just those deemed to have "extreme bias." This is a cop-out. As stated, bias is a near-universal. It is everywhere. It pervades everything. This is not cause to throw your hands up, declare that they're all corrupt, and disengage. That is the easy path, the lazy path. The real world is not an ideal. It is complicated, and it is messy. Bias, if recognized and balanced out with other sources, can be mitigated. It is when the bias becomes so extreme that it affects the content's ability to properly inform that marks the problem. The key is understanding the line where a political slant becomes a political narrative. For example, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have political slants, but Salon and Breitbart have political narratives. A few minutes spent browsing these sites will illustrate the difference. Keep this in mind while navigating the media landscape.

If there are any aspects of media literacy which you feel are important but were not discussed, or not discussed enough, please let me know. I am not averse to periodically updating this article.
  • Reading: Achieving Our Country
My GoodReads page contains a fair number of book reviews, the vast majority of which are positive (my average rating is 3.82/5). I thought it would be interesting to therefore share with you a selection of reviews from among some of the books I did not enjoy. The reviews are 95% spoiler free. 

"The Name of the Wind" by Patrick Rothfuss (2007) - Fantasy

Blurb (from GoodReads): The tale of the magically gifted young man who grows to be the most notorious wizard his world has ever seen. The intimate narrative of his childhood in a troupe of traveling players, his years spent as a near-feral orphan in a crime-ridden city, his daringly brazen yet successful bid to enter a legendary school of magic, and his life as a fugitive after the murder of a king form a gripping coming-of-age story unrivaled in recent literature. 

My review: "The Name of the Wind" is a tedious, meandering love story masquerading and packaged as fantasy. Large swaths of the text are devoted to the unbearable pining of an adolescent over the first girl to ever say two words to him. The style of the book was heavy-handed and almost unbelievably pretentious. Rothfuss sees fit to liberally infuse the exposition with little pearls of wisdom about love and life which sound like they could have come from any community college freshman in a creative writing class.

Still, I held out some hope that perhaps, as is sometimes the case, the ending might redeem the mediocre content of a book. No such luck. The book ends not on a cliff hanger or with any means of hooking you in to read the next one, but with this bizarre, sociopathic tirade of threats from one character to another. Maybe all would be made clear or mitigated once reading further volumes (maybe not though), but I'll never know."    (written 10/18/2015)

"God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows that God Does Not Exist" by Victor J. Stenger (2007) - Atheism, Science

Blurb (from GoodReads): Physicist Victor J. Stenger contends that, if God exists, some evidence for this existence should be detectable by scientific means, especially considering the central role that God is alleged to play in the operation of the universe and the lives of humans. Treating the traditional God concept, as conventionally presented in the Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions, like any other scientific hypothesis, Stenger examines all of the claims made for God's existence.

My review: If you want to read a book that argues in favor of atheism, I advise you to read literally almost any other book written on the subject. "God: The Failed Hypothesis" offers nothing substantive that the other atheistic books out there don't provide. Stenger is a physicist, and as such, this book will give you a bit more physics than the others, but where this one fell drastically short was the presentation and style. Victor Stenger may well be a fine scientist, but his writing is that of a high school text book; accessible, but humorless and dreadfully boring. The actual content of the book is sound, his arguments and analysis are valid and in accordance with all the available scientific knowledge and data, but good luck getting through this one.    (written 10/28/2014)

"A Shadow in Summer" by Daniel Abraham (2006) - Fantasy

Blurb (from GoodReads): The city-state of Saraykeht dominates the Summer Cities. Its wealth is beyond measure; its port is open to all the merchants of the world, and its ruler, the Khai Saraykeht, commands forces to rival the Gods. Commerce and trade fill the streets with a hundred languages, and the coffers of the wealthy with jewels and gold. Any desire, however exotic or base, can be satisfied in its soft quarter. Blissfully ignorant of the forces that fuel their prosperity, the people live and work secure in the knowledge that their city is a bastion of progress in a harsh world. It would be a tragedy if it fell. Saraykeht is poised on the knife-edge of disaster.

My review: The far-Eastern themed setting seemed refreshing and original, but this book left me waiting for something - anything - to draw me in. The story had almost nothing in the way of fantasy, action, adventure, or any meaningful struggle or conflict. The plot was glacial, the characters uninteresting, and their relationships forced with a heavy hand. "A Shadow in Summer" gave me no reason to continue on to the other books in the series.    (written 11/26/2014)

"The Shadow of the Torturer" by Gene Stone (1980) - Fantasy

Blurb (from GoodReads): It is the tale of young Severian, an apprentice in the Guild of Torturers on the world called Urth, exiled for committing the ultimate sin of his profession -- showing mercy toward his victim -- and follows his subsequent journey out of his home city of Nessus.

My review: There was a musty, scholarly dryness to the writing that, in and of itself, can work, but when combined with vague storytelling and incomprehensible, one-dimensional characters, rendered the book extremely difficult to immerse oneself in. The world and its history seemed interesting from the hints and allusions sprinkled throughout, but not enough to sway me to wade further into a story that, in swaths, makes little sense, and with characters I don't care about.    (written 12/26/2015)

"The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" by Mark Haddon (2003) - Fiction, Young Adult

Blurb (from GoodReads): Although gifted with a superbly logical brain, for fifteen-year-old Christopher everyday interactions and admonishments have little meaning. He lives on patterns, rules, and a diagram kept in his pocket. Then one day, a neighbor's dog, Wellington, is killed and his carefully constructive universe is threatened. Christopher sets out to solve the murder in the style of his favourite (logical) detective, Sherlock Holmes. What follows makes for a novel that is funny, poignant and fascinating in its portrayal of a person whose curse and blessing are a mind that perceives the world entirely literally.

My review: To be frank, reading "The Curious Incident" was a thoroughly unenjoyable experience, even downright grating at times. To whatever degree the style and content of this novel accurately represents the thought process and/or experience of those unfortunate souls so afflicted, then perhaps it can be useful in that regard as an educational tool. As a piece of literature, however, I found little of value. By its very nature, "Curious" has a built-in defense mechanism against criticism; it's a poor story told even more poorly, but it was written so on purpose, and it is about an autistic child, which conveys an unspoken ultimatum of insensitivity to any who would express distaste. I, however, have never been able to square the circle of convincing myself that irritating mediocrity is somehow more enjoyable or valuable than it seems by virtue of having been created intentionally so. There it is.    (written 4/5/2017)

"The Mismeasure of Man" by Stephen Jay Gould (1982) - Non-fiction, Science

Blurb (from GoodReads): How smart are you? If that question doesn't spark a dozen more questions in your mind (like "What do you mean by 'smart,'" "How do I measure it" and "Who's asking?"), then The Mismeasure of Man, Stephen Jay Gould's masterful demolition of the IQ industry, should be required reading.

My review: The synopsis of this book was hugely misleading. I was expecting an interesting, thought-provoking exploration on how we measure intelligence today. Instead, I got a textbook-like history lesson on all of the racist and pseudoscientific ways people used to measure it decades or centuries in the past. Let me sum this entire book up in a sentence to save you the time in reading it: "People back in the day had really stupid and racist means of measuring intelligence."    (written 4/26/2013)

"The Anubis Gates" by Tim Powers (1983) - Science Fiction, Time Travel

Blurb (from GoodReads): Brendan Doyle, a specialist in the work of the early-nineteenth century poet William Ashbless, reluctantly accepts an invitation from a millionaire to act as a guide to time-travelling tourists. But while attending a lecture given by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1810, he becomes marooned in Regency London, where dark and dangerous forces know about the gates in time. Caught up in the intrigue between rival bands of beggars, pursued by Egyptian sorcerers, befriended by Coleridge, Doyle somehow survives. And learns more about the mysterious Ashbless than he could ever have imagined possible.

My review: The plot itself was clever, both in conception and in the twists, but the story seemed to blur by at erratic, breakneck speeds. It was difficult at times to determine what was happening, and even more so to care. The plot synopsis, in summary, looks very ingenious and intriguing, but I did not enjoy the way it was written. The characters were two-dimensional, and no part of the story was allowed to breathe, but rather was frantically crammed down your throat. We've all read books that were agonizingly slow paced, but this one left me feeling like I've stepped off a roller coaster after too many cheese fries.    (written 8/28/2014)

If you find these reviews interesting, useful, dead-wrong, or offensive, feel free to let me know.

I'm on YouTube.
  • Reading: Mao's Last Dancer / 1984
I remembered I still have a Youtube channel. Watch, like, subscribe, share, repeat. My voice was a bit hoarse, it's been a long day.

I'm on YouTube.
  • Reading: The Swarm

You submitted your questions, so without further ado, here are my answers:

    "What are your thoughts on the Western philosophical traditions vs. Eastern, as well as the evolution of the value of an individual's life vs. culture, family, etc...”

On philosophical traditions, I have encountered wisdom in both, but I would be lying if I said that I knew anywhere near as much about Eastern philosophy in general as I do Western, and therefore deem myself too ignorant to make an informed pronouncement.  There is such diversity of thought in both that even if I developed a more robust foundation in Eastern philosophy, it still may not feel secure making comparisons as generalized as "East vs West."

On the evolution of value of the individual vs culture/family, this is something where I do see a distinct difference between the West the East (which I'd extend to the Middle-East and North Africa). Perhaps the biggest factor differentiating the two is the concept of honor; one's (or one's family's) standing and esteem in their community.  Honor played an important role in ancient societies, where humans lacked the societal, legal, and governmental infrastructure to hold order and keep peace.  It fell then to religion, which acted to scare people into behaving well (i.e. do this, or don't do this, because the gods will punish you otherwise).  But mingled with religion, and yet to a degree separate, was honor, which applied a measure of peer-pressure as well.  The desire to be of well repute, and the aversion to dishonor and shame, these are powerful forces.

Over the ages, the West has shed their reverence for honor in favor of individual rights.  The East has not.  The more sway honor has over a society, the less value the individual has.  They are inversely proportional.  And when viewed through the lens of honor, phenomena that can transcend nationality or religion, like ritual suicide, honor killings, and lengths people do to in these cultures to avoid or expunge shame, enter the realm of intelligibility.  To our individual-centric point of view, where the paramount values are life, liberty, and so forth, these seem insane.  We have this one life to live, and when I hear stories like Japanese men jumping from office building windows to their deaths to avoid having to face the shame of telling their families they were fired from their jobs, there is simply no amount of intellectual charity or devil's advocating I can do to square that circle.  Honor has a place in society.  It must however never be made to matter more than the life, concerns, and wellbeing of the individual, and any society in which it does is the poorer for it.

    “What do you think the world today would be like without monotheism?”

Let me get out my crystal ball... Of course, the further back one goes in time, the more difficult it is to estimate such things.  Monotheism traces back to Zoroastrianism, a Middle Eastern religion dating around the 6th century BCE, and still active today, though centuries of Muslim persecution have whittled their numbers for about five million I believe.  Zoroastrianism was the first monotheism, and was the inspiration for the monotheism within Judaism. Though the earliest texts and traditions of the Jews were in existence several hundred years before Zoroastrianism, Judaism was not, in its early days, a true monotheism. They worshipped only one god, yes, but they did not believe only one god existed.  Read the Old Testament, and you will see, in English, as in the original Hebrew, the language in which other gods are spoken of is one of rival gods, not of imaginary fabrications.  This was why the author of the Book of Jonah had him run from Yahweh, an act of such obvious futility to contemporary monotheists as to be absurd, but it was then believed that different regions each had their own provincial deities, and Jonah had hoped to cross this border, like a criminal fleeing the authorities into another country.  That Yahweh caught up with him regardless was the author's way of impressing the singular power of their god.

I digress. I think the world might be a better place today, had it not been for monotheism.  Monotheism, in its Abrahamic iterations, proved itself quite intolerant, murderous, and a hindrance to progress.  The counter point is one of the hackneyed themes of nearly every time-travel science fiction, where virtually any and all changes made to the past inevitably render the present even worse.  But I don't think so.  Various ancient Greek philosophers laid the foundations for scientific and Enlightenment thinking, notions which were buried during the Christian Dark Ages to be rediscovered, in some cases, over two millennia later anew.  I have no illusions as to the other religions; I'm sure they would have committed travesties, atrocities, and brutalities of their own (in addition to those they already have), but if I had to wager, they'd have done a better job than the Abrahamists.

    "Did you know that recent archeological evidence indicates that Jewish slaves did not actually build the pyramids in Egypt? It was in fact hordes of paid labourers.”

I did.  When the state of Israel was formed in 1948, a state-funded archaeological expedition was launched in hopes of proving the historical veracity of the Exodus tale in hopes of establishing the Biblical claim that the Jews believe they have over that land.  Despite all their confirmation bias and best efforts, no evidence has been found.  Most Biblical historians conclude that the Pentateuch (Five books of Moses, or first five books of the Bible), are little more than mythology.  Some later books do posses some degree of historicity, it must be noted.  The more recent findings the questioner referred to - that tombs of some pyramid builders were discovered, and appear to have been those of paid workers, not slaves - is in line with the other evidence.

    "What are your thoughts on Mormonism, also known as the LDS (Latter Day Saints) Church."

Let me preface this by saying I'm no expert on Mormonism, though I've read the "Book of Mormon" as well as the "Pearl of Great Price," and it doesn't seem a religion all that different from the rest.  It's an instructive religion, because it illustrates the fact that time lends a sort of gravitas, mystique, and air of legitimacy - not always deserved, and in fact, rarely so - to ideas and traditions.  Had Joseph Smith stumbled upon a time machine instead of his imaginary golden plates (which no one else was ever allowed to see, and which told him, among other things, that he must be allowed to sleep with his maid) he would today be numbered among the great prophets and patriarchs of world religion (for Mormonism may well be much larger and widespread were it older).  As it is, even in credulous 19th century America, old Joe found himself a convicted fraudster and con man.  Smith and his religion are just as the older religions would seem to us had they only been created within the past two hundred years.  In particular, the ritualism of Mormonism strikes some people as strange or creepy (i.e. magic underpants).  Coming from a religious Jewish background, perhaps I can relate better than most to weird ritual.  Still, there are corollaries in Islam and Catholicism, though few in Protestantism, the water-downed, plebeian Walmart of religion that it is.

One thing I enjoy about Mormonism, from a purely mythological point of view, is that Mormonism is one of the only full-fledged religions (of which I don't really count Scientology) that incorporates elements of science fiction into it.  The Pearl of Great Price, for example, features a segment, more or less, of "deleted scenes" of the Abraham story, where Yahweh takes Abe on a magical mystery tour of the cosmos, to the stars and galaxies and distant worlds.  I thought that was pretty trippy.  The kind of thing which would never have been in the original, since so much less was known in the first millennium BCE about astronomy.  I also find the belief that after death, the pious can become gods of their own planet a pretty neat deal.  Certainly beats 72 virgins (or "white raisins" depending on translation) in Islam, or the dystopian bliss of the Christian heaven (where you either suffer the knowledge of loved ones burning for thought crimes, or have happiness imposed on you to override it).

    "You are put in charge of a new government in the USA. What system do you put in and how do you style yourself (i.e. Mr President, Commander, Prime Minister etc...)"

To answer the second part first, I don't have much a preference. I wouldn't want it to give the wrong impression, or sound pretentious or vainglorious.  Perhaps I'd just stick with President.

The kind of system I'd put in place would be a secular representative democracy, one which more accurately and proportionally represents the citizens than the current US system does.  Economically, it would incorporate elements of both capitalism and socialism.  There would a comprehensive list of human rights, a robust social safety net and consumer protections built directly into the constitution, as would strong anti-corruption provisions.  Anyone seeking to run for high office would also need to pass a number of meritocratic hurdles before being eligible to run, including but not limited to level of education, time spent living abroad, a minimum amount of community service, and scientific literacy.  One specific idea which I would like to see implemented experimentally, perhaps just in specific areas as a trial run, would be a universal basic income.  I'm very intrigued by that, and am eager to see if it works.

hat are your favourite types of music?"

I'm not a big music person in general.  I more often listen to audiobooks, podcasts, and when they're on, NHL hockey games (audio streamed off my phone).  Even so, I do listen to music, mostly at the gym these days, and my favorite genre has long been pop-punk (my favorite band is Green Day).  Other genres I enjoy include alternative, Celtic folk, ambient, classical/orchestral, funk, and soul.

    "Do you think alien life would look more outworldly as in something completely different from anything on Earth or do you think that there'd be some fairly significant similarities between alien life and Earth life? Hands, wings, eyes, etc. "

My hunch would be to ere on the side of more alien as opposed to more familiar, given how biased, egocentric, and unimaginative we humans tend to be when envisioning such things.  Assuming we're dealing with biological beings and not AI's - and I suspect many of them are out there - I would expect there to be some basic biological similarities, such as DNA or something equivalent, sensory organs or apparatuses, the requirement to ingest or otherwise absorb energy and/or nutrients, and so forth.  The cosmos is a very big place, however, and it would not surprise me to learn that somewhere there are beings similar enough to us that we could relate quite well in most facets of life, but I'd expect such species to be exceedingly few and far between.  Whether we could ever find one another, across such vast distances, and coincidentally during the brief cosmic window in which both our species exist, seems sadly remote...

    "What's the most non-negotiable moral code you have? What scenario, no matter how unlikely or impossible it may be, would you see yourself supporting it?"

I thought about this for a while, and am unable to produce any true non-negotiables. There are always exceptions and extenuating circumstances, however unlikely.  If the world were at stake, for example, and its salvation depended on my jettisoning a deeply held moral precept, I would do it, and I would regard the failure to do so as monstrous.  Now the desire to prevent what Sam Harris refers to as the "worst possible misery for everyone" in his "The Moral Landscape," could perhaps qualify as a non-negotiable, but only because it is, by definition, the worst possible thing which could happen.  It therefore follows that there would never be a scenario in which I would willingly impose such a thing in order to prevent a yet worse fate, because there can be no worse fate.

    "If some incredibly powerful being came down to you and claimed it was God, what tests would you want it to pass to prove that it really is God and not an alien fucking with you?"

Arthur C. Clarke's "third law" - that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic - is a pretty sound one, and difficult to get around.  I would want any such being to violate multiple laws of nature, as well as logical paradoxes.  If a being could do those things, but is not in fact a god, it's a difference without a distinction as far as I'm concerned.

    "What do you think would be the best goal for NASA/other space programs in the next 20 years?"

A human mission to Mars.  The process of exploratory manned-space programs generates technological improvements that have wide-spanning applications, and also inspires interest in science as few other things can.  That's the pragmatic here-and-now reason.  Looking to the future, it is in humanity's best interest to move some of our eggs out of the same basket.  We have finite space, finite resources, an increasing population, and an ever-increasing capacity for self-destruction.  It's not hyperbolic to suppose that the ground work we lay today may well be the difference between the survival or extinction of humanity in the distant or not so distant future.  A mission to Mars would of course require more funding for NASA, which currently receives a mere pittance.  I support substantial increases to their budget.

    "What do you think about Friedrich Nietzsche?"

I'd known very little about Nietzsche save for a few tidbits and aphorisms commonly known by most semi-educated people, and a couple years ago at this point, decided to rectify the worst of my ignorance on the matter.  I read H.L. Mencken's (my user icon) "The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche" (1907), the first English language biography ever published on him (it was really half biography, half analysis).  The picture Mencken painted of Nietzsche and his philosophy rubbed me the wrong way.  There was a callousness, a championing of strength and a contempt for the weak and downtrodden that seemed to border on social darwinism.  It reminded me a little of Ayn Rand, which is never a good thing.  But this was Nietzsche as interpreted by another; I decided to go straight to the source.  I read Nietzsche's "On the Genealogy of Morals" (1887) immediately after, and was astounded at how different it was from Mencken's take.  Nietzsche was a good writer, argued compellingly on a number of things, and had some interesting insights into the human condition, some of which I had never before considered.  I came to see - through "Genealogy" and other writings - a different perspective and interpretation on his philosophy, one in which there is value.  I cannot call myself a fan of Friedrich Nietzsche, nor can I by any means claim to have anything but a basic foundational understanding of his work, but I consider him an important and influential thinker, certainly one whose works every well-rounded person should have read at least one of.

    "How have you politically evolved over the years? If you changed significantly at any point in time what made you change?"

When I first became politically conscious - at age fifteen - I was a conservative.  This was largely owing to my high school American history and Government/European history teachers, both of whom were, though knowledgeable, charismatic, and skilled instructors, very conservative, and taught with a clear bias.  After high school, my politics gradually shifted to the center, then left, then further left, where it has remained more or less.  As with many of my opinions as a grade-schooler, they were the products of an incomplete picture of the world, where I was only taught one side.  Once shown even a glimpse of the variety of what the world has to offer, and left to make my own decisions, I soon understood why such a tactic had been employed.

Over the course of my twenties, my views remained fairly consistent, the main change I see in myself is one of perspective and nuance.  I speak and think with less authority then I did ten years ago, make much more of an effort to play devil's advocate and consider other viewpoints, am slower to jump to conclusions, and quicker to recognize my own biases, and through that cognizance, try to mitigate them.  I was never an "ends justify the means" person, but in my early twenties, I was definitely further to that side of the spectrum than I now am.  I have come to believe that achieving one's goals is meaningless if it isn't done the right way.  Defeating a villain only to become one is a moral pyrrhic victory.  It's not just about who wins, it's about the way you play the game.  And if there is no right way, then excepting unrealistic "end of the world" scenarios, you accept defeat knowing that you did your best.  Perhaps I have a bit of that honor culture inside me somewhere, but the only standing I truly care about is how I stand with myself.  What precipitated these changes?  I'd say life, knowledge, experience, contemplation, trial and error, and living just long enough to begin seeing some patterns repeat themselves.   I wonder to what degree these things are teachable, and to what degree they must be learned the long way.  If there is even 1% that can be in fact taught, then perhaps teaching "perspective," "nuance," or even "wisdom" as subjects of their own might be worth a try.  Just a foolish thought.

    "Would you prefer Palestine/Israel peace/two state solution, one state headed by Israel or one state headed by Palestine?"

I favor a two-state solution. For a more in-depth exploration, see my essay On Israel and Palestine.

    "Favourite sweetie (candy/lolly)?"

I had to think about this one for a bit.  I actually don't have any at this point.  Boring, I know.  I used to really like the candy bar "Payday" as a kid.

    "If you had to travel overseas right now where would you go?"

Some place with warm weather, blue skies, low humidity, clean beaches, and crystal-clear waters.

    "Top ten fave authors?"

Fiction: Brandon Sanderson, J.R.R. Tolkien, Orson Scott Card, J.K. Rowling, Robert J. Sawyer, P.G. Wodehouse, Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin, Homer.

Non-fiction: Sam Harris, Bertrand Russell, Carl Sagan, H.L. Mencken, A.C. Grayling, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Jon Ronson, Michio Kaku, Ayaan Hirsi Ali

    "What's a book that changed your life?"

"The Catcher in the Rye" by J.D. Salinger (1951) as well as the many works of Edgar Allan Poe showed me, as an adolescent, that reading could be truly enjoyable.  J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Silmarillion" (1977), as well as Brandon Sanderson's "The Final Empire" (2006) and "The Way of Kings" (2010), and Orson Scott Card's "Ender" saga - specifically "Speaker for the Dead" (1986) - have, among many others, had a big influence on my own fiction writing.

"Back when you made films, what's the film you were most proud of and what's a small synopsis of it? Would you do a written version of it?"

I made a full-length feature indie film just after graduating college (as a film major).  The screenplay was written and pre-production done while in my last term, in fact, and filming begun just three weeks after graduation.  It went to a couple small film festivals, won some awards, and I secured a little direct-to-video distribution deal with some small-time company, but nothing much became of it commercially.  I was told by contacts in the industry that the film was good, but without big-name actors, and being low budget, there was no appetite at the time (just after the financial collapse and into the recession 2008-10, and during such times, the industry becomes risk-averse and gravitates toward proven commodities).  But I am proud of that film, and stand by it to this day as a solid movie.  I hesitate to say the title, as it's on IMDB, as am I, and I don't (yet) feel comfortable putting my info out there.  Here is a synopsis though:

A story about Danny, a teenager whose shallow way of life is thrown into question when his older brother Jay, who had run away from home five years earlier, suddenly returns. It's a story about two brothers trying to regain their bond, about Danny trying to find himself as a young man, and about Jay trying to come to terms with his past actions and making sure his little brother doesn't repeat his mistakes, all set in the comedic and quirky day to day lives of the characters.

It's a drama-comedy.  It exists in screenplay form as well, of course, but I have no desire to convert it to prose.  My interests have long-since shifted away from filmmaking and towards writing, but this is a side of me most of you will probably be unfamiliar with.

    "If you could guarantee the ratification of a single new constitutional amendment in 2017, what would it be and why?"

Getting money out of politics: mandating publicly financed elections, doing away with super pacs, ending corporate personhood, and making all campaign contributions illegal.  Our democracy doesn't truly work, and our people are not truly represented.  Until we have a properly working democracy, free from most of the taint of special interests and corruption, every other problem we try to tackle will be a steeply uphill battle where the moneyed interests hold all the cards.

    "What is your opinion on the economic, political, and immigration crises in Europe and what, in your opinion, is the best political course of action to solving them?"

A very difficult issue.  I think anyone able to, whether an individual or a country, has a moral obligation to help those in need, especially those who cannot help themselves.  Many if not most of the migrants and refugees would certainly fall into that category.  The problem that arises however is twofold.  First, if you are going to help someone - truly help them - you've got to do it the right way, you've got to see it through.  The failure to do is a disservice to those you seek to help, and in great enough numbers, can be a drag and detriment on your society.  What I mean by "seeing it through" is integration.  People from very different cultures, with different religions, ideologies, and languages, need to be integrated into societies when migrating in mass numbers.  Otherwise, there will be an inevitable clash between the preexisting culture and this new one, and the ensuing division and discord will manifest in all sorts of ugly ways.  Some options to foster integration: Incentivize, or perhaps even require newcomers to take elementary courses in civics and the native language.  Incentivize those living in cloistered enclaves of similar immigrants to move to other areas; financial monopolies are broken up, so too should discordant cultural ones - but never by force, change of this sort must be fostered, not imposed.  And members of these immigrant communities must be subject to the same rule of law as everyone else; no free passes, no extra leniency above anyone else, and no self-governing areas.  All should be free to believe and do as they please, right up until their actions impede on the law of the land, at which point they must be brought to justice.  Setting up a double standard, as various places in Europe have, is a very dangerous path to tread indeed.

The second problem with this migrant crisis ties heavily into the first, and that's the problem of volume.  I stated that all who are able to have a moral obligation to help those in need.  I think most European countries are able to absorb and integrate some refugees.  Some have bitten off substantially more than they can chew, however.  As with anything, it behooves one to know their limits.  Giving half of all your money to charity, at the cost of missing your mortgage payments and losing your home, will not only impoverish you, but it will restrict your ability to continue to help others through charity moving forward.  The concept of sustainability must factor in to decisions to aid those in need.  Taking in too many refugees will place an economic burden on a nation, weakening them, and by extension, limiting their ability to help others moving forward.  Taking in too many refugees will also, as stated, cause societal discord, which will turn public interest away.  It also makes the project of integration substantially harder, as integration is a process which takes some time.  The problem is, what if every country has absorbed the maximum capacity of migrants without damaging themselves, and yet there are still more migrants out there, homeless and in need?  There are some countries who are able but not pulling their weight, and the rest of the world should sanction them severely until they start doing so.

One of the side effects of this crisis in Europe has been the rise of the far-right.  There is this disturbing legacy Europe has with the far-right; it always seem to be there, lurking just beneath the surface, waiting for only the slightest provocation to rear its head.  Poorly handled immigration crises give them more than enough fuel to wreak havoc, given half a chance.  My warning to everyone is this: Fight to reclaim or reform the ways of the political left, or, if you deem that a lost cause, move to the center, but the far-right is not the answer.  They lack the intellectual and ethical integrity and responsibility to govern in a competent and moral manner.  One would be a fool to align with them out of opposition to Islam or political correctness; you'd merely be replacing one ill for another.  They will destroy a society as surely as those they seek to protect it from.

    "If you were to make an estimate of the direction of the political future of the first world, where do you think it'll go?"

The arc of history shows a clear and steady progress, when viewed from far enough away.  The closer we magnify any one period of time however, we see the ups and down like a stock market.  I think the first half of the 21st century will be one in which progress is made in many areas, like science, technology, medicine, but where many metrics of a healthy society; economies, inequality, division, etc, may get worse before they get better.  I foresee this trend of political polarization and balkanization continuing for a number of years, each side continually dividing into subsets, and everyone more deeply entrenching themselves.  As long as we can avoid somehow destroying ourselves, my outlook for the future is positive, however.  I think the second half of this century will be the better, and that the trials, tribulations, and turmoils of this era may be viewed in hindsight as a hiccup, not a prelude to the unraveling of everything.

That being said, I would not be surprised to see the world take many a turn which I never saw coming, turns which I'd never even considered as possibilities.  Given the rapid rate of change, the mind-numbing quantity and complexity of moving parts involved, and consequently how often we are wrong in our predictions (only through confirmation bias can we delude ourselves otherwise), perhaps the best prediction one can make would be "expect the unexpected."

    "If you could change one thing about last year (2016), what would it be?"

That Bernie Sanders would have won the Democratic nomination for president, and went on to win the US election.

    "I am so afraid of religious people, to me they behave irrational and impulsive, and you will rarely get any backup if you get into a confrontation with them. My question: are you afraid, AmericanDreaming? And if so how do you deal with it?"

Religion itself is irrational, however many religious people are, outside of that one area of life, fairly reasonable.  Still, others are less so.  I am not in the habit of getting into confrontations with people, at least in real life.  That's not to say I don't, but I'm never the one to start it.  There can be something uncomfortable about getting into an argument in real life with someone you don't know well, but I don't think there's any cause for fear.  Unless you're arguing with a bunch of Jihadists or with a particularly belligerent person who seems on the cusp of physical violence, you need not worry.  Religious people do far outnumber the irreligious, and ganging up is something they're prone to do.  On some level, the mind seems to rebel against such violations of rationality as religion teaches, and only through frequent repetition and the immersion in echo chambers of other like-minded people can it be maintained in many people.

Remember, you hold all the leverage.  They are the ones making the claims with no evidence. They are the ones who have to defend their horrid "holy" books.  Their every attempt at going on the offensive is pure projection and posturing.  Never let them get away with it.  Never let them twist utility claims into truth claims, or to jump between the two during a single point.  Never let them shift the burden of proof off of themselves and into you.  Some people - religious or otherwise, though it is more common among the faithful - place equal stock in your demeanor as with your actual points.  If they "sense" weakness, they will, not unlike wild animals, go for the jugular.  You can manipulate this primitive instinct by adopting a countenance, not of dominance or aggressiveness, but of cool resolve.  Be unflappable.  If you are ruffled or anxious, don't show it.  In addition, the more you know about how to argue and about the specifics of the particular issue at hand, the more confidence you will have.  If you haven't seen them already, perhaps my debate guide part one and part two may be of some use to you.

    "What would you regard as the most important aspect of Enlightenment ideals and or liberal values.  Would you consider such values the most important ones ever produced by mankind, more valuable and perhaps morally superior to any other values ever devised by mankind?"

Freedom of speech.  It is the master key to freedom, liberty, knowledge, and understanding, functioning as perhaps the best barometer of the health of a society.  I believe it to be a foundational value and right.  You can start with that alone, and from it, gain all others.  It's a sad reflection on modern times that freedom of speech has become a politically charged issue.  There are some for whom talk of freedom of speech has come to mean those concerned only with their freedom to be assholes.  To others, it conjures images of dictatorial universities and activists who seek to control expression to their narrative.  This should never have become a political issue.  Freedom of speech can be misused, or bent to nefarious purposes, but it is a self-regulating concept.  Bad speech can be countered by good speech.  I would say that yes, Enlightenment ideals and liberal values are, if not the best, better than all others.  I'm hesitant to declare it the be-all and end-all.  There may yet be even better ideas which will one day be devised.

Thanks to all who submitted questions. This was fun to do!  Be sure to check out my previous AMA: Ask Me Anything - Judaism

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  • Reading: Animal Liberation
For a number of years I've been making reading lists, and setting myself annual reading challenges. I've made a recent tradition of doing year-end journals about some of the best books I've read. Sadly I was only able to read 25 books in 2016, well below my output of years past (but there's always next year!). I would like to share some of the highlights below, along with thumbnails to pictures I've made featuring quotes from each work. You can see all the books I've read here.  See also 2014 and 2015 for previous installments of "My Year in Books." 


"Open Letter: On Blasphemy, Islamophobia, and the True Enemies of Free Expression" (2015) by Stéphane "Charb" Charbonnier.  Charlie Hebdo's Charb pulls no punches in his scathingly witty condemnation of religious fundamentalism, the media, politicians, racists, and the far-right. This manifesto on the necessity of free speech, liberal values, and the freedom of expression, driven home by his assassination just days after its completion, is truly a thing of beauty. See my GoodReads review.

Super Surveillance by AmericanDreaming   Atheophobia by AmericanDreaming

"Radical: My Journey out of Islamist Extremism" (2012) by Maajid Nawaz. This superbly written autobiography offers crucial insight into the mind of an Islamist; what creates them, what drives them, and how they view the world. The unfolding of Nawaz's life story will grip you, move you, and open your mind. The impassioned eloquence of his words bleed through every page, uncontainable and utterly contagious. I cannot recommend this highly enough.  See my GoodReads review.

Ideas are Bulletproof by AmericanDreaming   The Poverty of Expectation by AmericanDreaming   On Diversity by AmericanDreaming

"The Challenge of Things: Thinking Through Troubled Times" (2015) by A.C. Grayling.  A near perfect collection of essays on philosophy, science, history, politics, religion, mythology, society, social issues, education, literature, abstract concepts, and everyday affairs; about life and the human condition. The writing is excellent, the polemics passionate and well-reasoned, and the preponderance of information gives one a helpful refresher in a dozen different subjects. One of the best books I've read this year. See my GoodReads review.

Enslaved to a Bad Past by AmericanDreaming   That is Your Problem by AmericanDreaming   The Miracle Workers by AmericanDreaming   The Lucky Ones by AmericanDreaming   Something Rather Different by AmericanDreaming   It Takes a Lot of Compost by AmericanDreaming   The Press-Internet Symbiosis by AmericanDreaming

"The Atheist Muslim: A Journey from Religion to Reason" (2016) by Ali A. Rizvi.  The Atheist Muslim is one of the most complete books I've ever read on atheism and religion. Told semi-autobiographically from a cultural Muslim's point of view, Ali Rizvi argues as convincing a case against religion as ever there was. He offers valuable insights into the soul of Islam and the Muslim community, delving into scripture, doctrine, ritual, custom, culture, and through to the core ethos and psychology whose currents are the heartbeat of Islam today. 

His writing is nuanced, passionately honest, and refreshing. There's something real about how he writes, like a friend, one who speaks to the mind, but from the heart, one who won't just tell you what you want to hear, but will tell you hard truths in earnest out of genuine concern and respect. You will not want to put this down until it's finished. I hesitate to call The Atheist Muslim a masterpiece, but it comes very, very close.  See my GoodReads review.

Cut Out the Middleman by AmericanDreaming

"Nothing: A Very Short Introduction" (2009) by Frank Close.  I wasn't sure what to expect, reading a book that is literally about "nothing." And yet, I found it fascinating. It focuses heavily on the exploration of "nothing" from the point of view of physics, and ties it in nicely with the cosmic question of "how did we come to be?" The universe is apparently evidence that we can indeed get something from nothing. So too is this little book.  See my GoodReads review.

The Cycle of Progress by AmericanDreaming

"Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries" (2012) by Jon Ronson.  A collection of highly unusual and extraordinary stories covered by the quirky journalist Jon Ronson over the years. I really enjoyed it, and it left me wanting more, which is all the endorsement any book can hope for.  See my GoodReads review.

"Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of Amerca's Police Forces" (2013) by Radley Balko.  Radley Balko lays out an undeniable ocean of evidence to demonstrate that police in America become far too militaristic, and too quick to use force. Even to those of us plugged into this issue, the sheer volume of cases, statistics, and testimonies are shocking, even overwhelming at a point. I found myself almost numbed to the scope of the problem. As Stalin of all people once remarked, one death is a tragedy, a million deaths are a statistic. There's also a good deal of history to begin the book, which I found fascinating, and which also puts everything into perspective. The U.S., as Balko himself ends the book saying, may not be a police state, but we shouldn't wait for it to become one before caring. See my GoodReads review.

Blessed are the Peacemakers by AmericanDreaming   You Secretly Want Cops Killed by AmericanDreaming   It Would Be Foolish to Wait by AmericanDreaming

"Letters from the Earth: Uncensored Writings" (written 1909, published 1962) by Mark Twain.  The early essays of "Letters" are among the most entertaining and deliciously blistering I've ever read. The rest were a mixed bag, some very interesting, insightful, and humorous, others considerably less so. On the whole, a solid collection that makes for a pretty good read. Shout out to WorldsandCenturies for recommending this to me. See my GoodReads review.

How's the Weather? by AmericanDreaming

"Pensées: Moral and Intellectual Objections to Christianity from a Multi-Disciplinary Point of View" (2012) by fellow DeviantArt user Brett Zimmerman (Zoomer1958).  The collection of writings which comprise "Pensées" offers wide-ranging commentary that touches on history, literature, philosophy, science, pop-culture, and the modern world, with a fierce, humanistic critique of Christianity (and theism more generally) woven throughout. Some chapters felt scholarly, others more polemic, and some purely satirical (with laugh-out-loud moments). Zimmerman makes it a point to infuse tidbits of humor throughout. He also, out of deference to the many giants whose shoulders we all stand on, makes liberal use of quotations and references to many great thinkers, however I think that sometimes came at the cost of disrupting flow. 

Most useful of all were the chapters on logical argumentation (an excellent companion recommended to anyone who enjoyed my own debate guides part one and two) and logotherapy respectively, both of which are great resources to hone body, mind, and (figurative) spirit. A worthwhile read, and informative too! See my GoodReads review.


"Black Sun Rising" (1991) by C.S. Friedman. Book one of the "Coldfire Trilogy." A refreshing blend of sci-fi and fantasy with a very interesting premise. Friedman succeeded in creating multi-dimensional characters with emotions every bit as complex and complicated as real people, with a style of writing that fully brings them to life. I wished that the story would have lingered just a little bit more at certain points, where it felt a bit rushed, and the mechanics and rules of the system of magic might have been explained more, but these are quibbles. Black Sun Rising was quite well done, and the main characters, Damien Vryce and Gerald Tarrant, quickly rose among the ranks of my favorite characters in all of fiction throughout the course of the trilogy.  See my GoodReads reviews: Black Sun Rising (book one), When True Night Falls (book two), and Crown of Shadows (book three).

"Quantum Night" (2016) by Robert J. Sawyer.  A fusion of science, philosophy, and politics, Quantum Night is a sci-fi thriller that sends you twisting and turning through unexpected but ultimately connected paths, exploring regions of thought on the boundaries of most people's comfort zones, and confronting fascinating ethical dilemmas where the rubber of principles hits the road of real life. It was easily immersed, well-paced, and I found the protagonist highly relatable (to me, at least). What I enjoyed most about this novel was just how much it makes you think about deep concepts and issues. I cannot recall the last work of fiction I read which was this thought provoking. See my GoodReads review.

"Fahrenheit 451" (1953) by Ray Bradbury.  I thought I'd throw you guys a bone and include at least one book anyone else is likely to have read :XD:. A disquieting picture of a possible future in which anti-intellectualism and consumerism have degraded society unchecked. This was one of the many books I was assigned as a child (as most of us were), but declined to read and simply bullshitted my way through. I'm glad I took the time to read it now, all these years later, and I must say that I cannot imagine my younger self having fully appreciated the writing or the moral. See my GoodReads review.

Worth a Read

The following is a quick list of some additional titles which, though they don't number among my favorites, are nevertheless well worth reading.

"The Ancient Near East: A Very Short Introduction" (2013) by Amanda H. Podany.   See my GoodReads review.
"Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era" (2013) by James Barrat.   See my GoodReads review.
"How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed" by Ray Kurzweil.   See my GoodReads review.
"Calamity" (The Reckoners, book three) (2016) by Brandon Sanderson.   See my GoodReads review.
"The Bands of Mourning" (Mistborn, book six) (2016) by Brandon Sanderson.   See my GoodReads review.
"The World as I see it" (1934) by Albert Einstein.   See my GoodReads review.

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  • Reading: Uncle Tom's Cabin

Full title: The Comprehensive Guide to Debating Theists, Religious Fundamentalists, Religious Apologists, Conspiracy Theorists, New-Agers, Believers in the Paranormal, and other Dogmatists. Part Two.

  Precepts for Debating (continued)

- Consider your own responses as though you were your opponent 

As important as the substance and merit of your arguments are, it is equally important to take reasonable steps to ensure that your words will not be misunderstood, misconstrued, or strike an unintended chord. A sound point counts for nothing if it will not be perceived as such by your target audience. In in-person conversations, this entails choosing your words with care, and in written exchanges, entails carefully rereading your response before you send it, and making necessary changes. Hear/read your own words as your opponent might, and this will allow you to preempt some of the turbulence that often derails conversations. You want to avoid coming off as hostile or condescending in tone, to communicate your ideas as clearly and succinctly as possible, and to close as many doors to misunderstanding as you can locate. Also refer back to the "Know Your Opponent" section from Part One. Sometimes, you may find yourself veering away from certain points, or going out of your way to offer caveats, moves which might, at first glance, seem to undermine your argument. Equivocation can sometimes give off an aura of dithering or even weakness, but you must be mindful of your primary objective: getting through to your opponent. You have to make the judgement call as to whether your highest chance of success can be achieved by going for the jugular versus a more careful, nuanced approach, and in the vast majority of scenarios, it is the latter that will yield the most desirable results.

- Identifying when someone else is “playing to win” 

In part one, I discuss the importance of keeping your eye on the goal of changing minds, and not merely trying to score rhetorical points and administer a beatdown of your opponent. Your opponents, however, may not abide by such precepts. It becomes clear when your opponent is not interested in having an honest debate about ideas, instead throwing zingers and clever one-liners in an attempt to make you look stupid. When you have identified such a person, it’s best not to sink to their level. When they go low, you go high, to borrow a line from Michelle Obama. The more they try to “own” or “burn” you, the calmer and cooler you should be. When you rebut point after point without appearing to break a sweat, their bravado will begin to crack. Look for signs of what may annoy them, and tailor your points to that. A debater looking to embarrass their opponent is usually quite vulnerable to such a fate themselves. If you stymie them at every turn, and do so with perfect class and civility, there’s a good chance they’ll end up embarrassing themselves. You need not throw a punch, just dodge theirs with grace, and let the momentum of their miss carry their fist into the wall.

- Being right isn’t enough 

This is one of the hardest lessons I had to learn in debating, and I did so through painstaking trial and error. Constructing valid, logically consistent arguments which align more accurately with the evidence than your opponents positions is no guarantee that you will get through to them, nor to the audience. It’s simply not enough. You have to contend with all sorts of preconceived notions, biases, emotions, and in some cases basic ignorance about some facts or how logical argumentation even works. These factors act as barriers to opposing views, outside information, and contrary points. Your best tool to slice through the membranes of your opponents self-constructed mental bubble is to make use of caveats. Don’t miss an opportunity to add a clarifying modifier to a point or rebuttal which acknowledges an area of agreement, concedes a fair point your opponent made, or elucidates your position to make it seem less scary, radical, or threatening from their point of view. To a degree, you have to hold their hand. They exist, but rare indeed is the person who can be smashed in face with the cudgel of truth, get up, and be a changed person. Similarly, it’s important to recognize the specifics of your opponent's emotional biases, and to make sure your arguments mitigate them. For example, If a theist holds their position in part because they believe the alternative is too cold and meaningless, administering Carl Sagan’s famous “Pale Blue Dot” monologue about the utter insignificance of humanity isn’t likely to make you inroads, as true, poetic, and beautiful as it is.

- Steel-manning 

We’re all familiar with the “straw man” argument: it’s when someone uncharitably caricatures, incorrectly infers, or flat out fabricates a very weak argument and attributes it to their opponent, then strikes it down with ease. Straw manning is widely and correctly regarded as a cheap and fallacious mode of argumentation. The opposite of the straw man is the steel man; when you sum up your opponents points so fairly and honestly that they themselves would agree with it, before yourself offering a rebuttal. This is a show of good will, and a way to facilitate it from your opponent. It’s also the intellectually honest and ethical way to be. Misrepresenting your opponent deliberately, or out of carelessness, is one of the primary causes of the travesty that public discourse has devolved to in recent years. Honesty is key, but should your opponent fail to reciprocate, never hesitate to point it out, then continue making your points and rebutting theirs, and let them tarnish themselves with their own behavior.

   Common tactics of dogmatists (continued)

- The Gish Gallop

Throw enough mud at the wall, and hope something sticks. That’s the Gish Gallop in a nutshell, and we’ve all seen it. It’s when someone throws out a deluge of points, moving always to the next one, never hunkering down to really debate the nitty-gritty of any one in specific. It’s like a game of intellectual whack-a-mole, where you counter one point to find another one popping up elsewhere. The purpose is one of deflection and misdirection, to bewilder you, and to distract from the fact that they have no quality points, and are therefore resorting to quantity instead. How do you slow this down and take control of the debate? By not playing along and simply pointing it out. The moment you point out what they’re doing, they can either continue doing it and prove you right, deny it, which you can easily show is laughable, or they can stop, and some small semblance of sanity will be restored to the conversation.

When debating online, the Gish Gallop also sometimes takes the form of copy-paste walls of text from your opponent, chocked full of articles and links, as though you’ve unwittingly been signed up for some crackpot email list. As with previously, simply call your opponent out and explain the dishonesty of what they’re doing. They know you aren’t going to read them, they’re just trying to distract you, to drown you in nonsense until you lose interest or patience and quit. Don’t let them. 

- The “Argument from Authority Fallacy” fallacy

In philosophy and in debating, one well-known fallacy is the Argument from Authority (or Appeal to Authority), which is when someone argues in favor of claim X because of who agrees with them, rather than the evidence, reason, or merits of the argument itself. A mistake that people make, however, is to mischaracterize 
every reference to experts as an appeal to authority. This occurs most often in debates with conspiracy theorists, climate change deniers, and creationists, unsurprisingly all areas where the consensus of experts goes against the dogmatist’s argument. As stated in part one of this guide, when the evidence is on the opposing side, a common strategy is to devalue evidence. Similarly, when the experts line up on one side, look for Appeal to Authority accusations to be flung liberally and fallaciously. 

An argument commits the Appeal to Authority fallacy when it A) appeals to someone who is not actually an expert in the relevant field (citing a medical doctor’s analysis of climate change as authoritative, for example), B) Cites the opinions of an expert as fact, C) Appeals to a small dissenting minority of experts on an issue where there’s a large majority consensus, or D) Cites experts as the sole proof of the argument.

What your opponent may often do, when you bring up the scientific consensus on things like evolution, climate change, vaccines, etc, is to tell you that you’re committing this fallacy. If, however, you are not falling prey to any of the four variations above, that is to say: the experts you cite have produced verifiable data, they are in fact legitimate experts, they do not represent a fringe, and you are not citing them in lieu of an argument, but rather as one of a number of points, then you are not committing this fallacy. Their accusation represents one of two tools they have with which to counter the fact that the experts are on your side, the other being their misuse and misrepresentation of historical examples when consensuses were wrong, or other anomalous occurrences unaccounted for. Experts are sometimes wrong. Most of the time, they aren't, and the compounding and compiling of knowledge that occurs at near exponential rates continues to raise that probability with each passing second. They used to say the Earth was the center of the universe, so why trust the experts now? They laughed at the Wright Brothers, too. Sentiments and arguments like these are near the peak levels of intellectual dishonesty. The irony here, is that these accusations are made when the dogmatist is on the offensive. Get them on the defensive, and you will soon unearth true examples of arguments from authority fallacies. Vast majorities of experts in relevant fields are fallacious to invoke, but fringe scholars, scholars in irrelevant fields, pseudo-scientists, and holy books aren’t? Never let someone get away with this tactic. Explain to them how this fallacy works, how they’ve got it wrong, and how they themselves are in fact the guilty party.

To dig deeper, The “Logic of Science” blog has a very useful and informative entry on this subject.

  Some common roadblocks to having productive debates

- Intelligent Dogmatists

Do not confuse ideas with those who hold them. Any given idea or dogma may be insane or foolish, but that does not mean those who subscribe to them are. Many can be every bit as bright and smart as you, even more so. Why then do they hold these beliefs? There are a variety of reasons and factors that go into this, the exploration of which is another subject for another time. Suffice it to say that everyone, you, me, even the smartest people you know, have intellectual blind spots. If you lose sight of this, it will often translate to a level of disrespect for your opponent that even those most careful cannot fully keep from tinging their words and tone (more on the importance of respect later).

And intelligent dogmatists are also astonishingly adept at arguing their points. Intelligence doesn’t mean one is correct, but it means one can sometimes argue more convincingly about something which is incorrect. The smarter a dogmatist is, the more cleverly they will rationalize their beliefs, and the better they'll be at debating. Intelligence is a tool, one that can be put to the uses of skepticism, or put to the use of apologia. Debating such people generally entails being more thorough, and more methodical. Their points must be dissected and torn down brick by brick. Be prepared to delve down into dozens of rabbit holes, each one leading to others still deeper. Every point you make will be contested, often at the premise, and you must be patient. Do not expect them to concede anything, at least not easily. Intelligence does not necessarily translate to honesty. Not in them, and not in you, either. Honesty is perhaps the most important thing in productive conversations (and in life, too), but yours will be used against you and twisted, fashioned into a weapon which your opponent will wield cunningly and without shame. It is completely understandable why a sane person with a life would want to avoid debates with such people. To these intelligent dogmatists, this avoidance or the abandonment of debates midway from their opponents are seen as a victory, a sign that they are correct. Galling though it is to see such people stroking themselves like caged simians, if you are not prepared or willing to follow them into wonderland for what are usually very, very long and involved debates, then you are wasting your time. Such people require an all-or-nothing mentality. Either engage fully in an ideological war of attrition, or don’t bother.

- Differing Core Values 

The scientific worldview is what lies at the heart of the rationalist and the scientific skeptic. The philosophical core of this worldview can be expressed in a short list of essential values; foundational principles of paramount importance. These are evidence, observation, scientific skepticism, reason, logical consistency, intellectual honesty, and parsimony. And these come as a package. Used in isolation, many of these can lead to erroneous conclusions. It is not uncommon for religious believers (usually Catholics), for example, to pose arguments in favor of their faith which are logically sound, but which are built upon false premises.

What far too many fellow rationalists fail to fully wrap their minds around, is that these core values are not necessarily shared by other people. That’s not to say many if not most people do not value them at all, but they are not the philosophical foundation of their worldview as they are with ours. That makes all the difference. In same cases, you will encounter people for whom some of these values do in fact mean very little. It is important to understand this difference between you and your opponent. When you drill down past someone’s style and tactics, past their personality, past their emotions and even past their beliefs, you hit bedrock at their core values.  Recognizing these differences can make sense out of otherwise mind-boggling encounters.

The starkest difference is commonly in the value of evidence. As stated, you will occasionally encounter the odd - and refreshingly honest - individual dogmatist who will indeed come out and admit that evidence is not of particularly high importance to them. As for the rest, they will claim to value evidence, but their beliefs and reasonings betray their assertions. If you believe something on flimsy, circumstantial, or nonexistent evidence, or in the face of contrary evidence, then your insistence that you value evidence is little more than empty words. Some dogmatists get around this by simply defining evidence, and the other core values of a scientific worldview, in a much broader and more lax manner, one which encompasses things like personal experiences, or single unsubstantiated eye-witness accounts, for example, as being legitimate evidence alongside any verified scientific data. Others simply play a game of misdirection, saying one thing, but doing another. Their words insist they value evidence, but their beliefs tell another story, one of wishful thinking, emotional bias, and feelings. It is understandable, of course. Any semi-educated person of moderately sound mental faculties can plainly see that the optics of openly admitting that they care more about what makes them feel good than evidence are terrible. And so while they’ll formulate arguments and lines of reasoning that essentially express this, they will insist the opposite, and will become indignant should you suggest a discrepancy.

The reason this is such a roadblock to productive debates is that you and your opponent don’t just hold different views, or see the world in different ways; you want different things in this world. You, the rationalist and scientific skeptic, want the truth. The dogmatist usually wants to some form of solace, comfort, or assurance. Theists want justice, to see their loved ones in the afterlife, meaning in the ultimate cosmic sense, conspiracy theorists tend to want boogeymen to scapegoat their own failures and misfortunes onto, and so on. Truth matters to many of them, but it is not the most important. Reason matters to many of them, but it is not the most important. And this puts you at an impasse. As neuroscientist Sam Harris has asked, what evidence can you provide someone who doesn’t value evidence, to prove to them that they should? What reason could you give someone who doesn't value reason to demonstrate to them that they should? You are essentially speaking different languages, broadcasting on different wavelengths. One of the most important aspects of your opponent worth ascertaining is to what degree they share your core values. There are some dogmatists who do share your values, but through lack of education, information, indoctrination, and other factors, currently hold their beliefs. They can be reached. Once upon a time, I was one such dogmatist. As for the rest, you can still plant seeds of doubt and skepticism, and that is dependent on you trying to speak to their values, and, in whatever way you can, nudging them in the direction of valuing yours a bit more. Such evolutions can occur, but as with biological ones, they take place gradually, and by increments. You can contribute to this if you are diligent and perceptive.

- Some people are not open to change

Cynics will say this is nearly always the case, but the truth is not quite so gloomy. Very few people are open to, or indeed capable of, an on-the-spot change of mind on an issue where they have a strong opinion. You will generally not be the driver that takes your opponent to their destination, but you can in some cases reprogram their GPS without their realizing it, setting them on a different course that will eventually lead somewhere near. However, it is true that many people, perhaps even a majority, are extremely closed to change. If you have identified such a person, don’t fret; you haven’t just wasted your time, but refocus your strategy on the audience instead. If your opponent is unconvincible, then your target audience becomes everyone else who can or may see the debate. You need not take the same level of care in trying to get through to your opponent, and can be a bit more liberal in your rhetorical flourishes. Draw humorous comparisons, highlight absurdities without pulling punches, and be funny. Put on a show, an intellectually honest show, but a show nonetheless. To see this approach in glorious action, watch Christopher Hitchens in his many debates. They are very useful, instructive, and compelling, but more than anything, entertaining.

- Emotional bias and personal experience

You will find yourself, from time to time, engaged in debates with people who harbor a very deep-seated bias born out their personal connection or emotional experience related to the issue at hand, and this isn’t relegated merely to truth debates with dogmatists, this applies across the board. Debating the existence of god with a theist who has had a spiritual or transcendent experience, debating about the flaws of an industry to someone who’s spent years working in it, and especially debating the ethics of an enterprise to someone who’s been a part of it, these debates are often hamstrung right out of the gate. Why? Because your opponent is too invested emotionally, too connected personally, and too close to it; unable to pull back from their own experience to see a wider picture, or consider outside perspectives. Such people are, often times, among the most closed-minded individuals you are ever likely to come across. You’re looking to have a relatively objective debate about something, evaluating and weighing its merits or flaws. To you, it’s intellectual. To your opponent, it’s personal. Your opponent is interpreting your every point through the sole lens of their experience and emotion, and similarly, they're interpreting your every critique not as a debate of ideas, but as a personal attack, an attempt to assault their character or delegitimize their experience(s).

To such people, their closeness to and experience in the subject at hand grants them an unassailable level of understanding, knowledge, and wisdom. Experience grants some of those things some of the time, but often one’s sense of it is grossly exaggerated. What often comes along with this is a complete and utter close-mindedness to change, the inability to be objective or dispassionate (or even civil, in some cases), along with the clouding of one’s reasoning and judgement. Those “in the know” based on their experience, tend to consider themselves more qualified than you to speak of such things. Not infrequently however, the pros of their experience may be outweighed - for the purposes of having productive conversations - by the cons listed above, offset by the close-minded tunnel vision that the experience which granted it also encumbers them with. This isn’t to say that personal experience is worthless, far from it, but it doesn’t make someone right automatically, it doesn’t negate the necessity for sound arguments, valid points, or evidence, and the unfortunate (but predictable) side effects of it render debates and discussions strained and often fruitless.

And apart from being closed to change, the true roadblock this puts in the way of productive dialogue is that it instills in one a sense of superiority, that the debate is one between them, the person who’s “been there” or “understands,” and you, the mouthy layperson. Your opponent has no interest in honestly considering your arguments, does not care about the merit of your points, the evidence, and so on, because
you, by virtue of your lack of experience in their eyes, are not on their level, and therefore nothing you say holds weight with them. They don't see it as a debate of equals, but rather one of superior (them) to inferior (you). Their mindset is not to have a debate among peers, but to put you in your place, to set you straight, and that poisons the conversation from the outset.

- The failure to see an opponent as an equal 

One of the ground rules that must be present for a productive debate to be had, is some level of mutual respect. You may disagree with the other person, you may find their beliefs or ideas to be absurd, insane, or stupid, but you must regard them as an equal, as a fellow human and potential friend from whom you may in fact learn something. This goes beyond simply treating your opponent with civility and decency, but in how you regard them. If you truly do not think your opponent is on your level, or could possibly have something they might teach you, or if your opponent feels this way about you, whatever will transpire between you is not in the spirit of true intellectual debate; it is merely an argument, a shouting match, or a war of words. The failure to see one another as equals almost always translates to some level of disrespect, close-mindedness to change, and the prioritization of "winning" rather than getting through or changing minds. Achieving this is no easy task, but as with many things in life, the most difficult tend to be the most rewarding. Of course, this has to be a two-way street, and it only takes the lack of respect from one party to impede a meaningful exchange. You must do your part, and if it becomes clear that you opponent cannot do the same, then as with before, shift gears and focus instead on the audience.

I'm on YouTube.

We all have some pieces which we like, that never seem to get the attention or recognition they deserve.  I solicited the recommendations of a few friends, and added some selections from other friends, plus a couple of my own. :D  Enjoy, and please feel free to share more content in the comments.

WorldsandCenturiesBrain Fodder by WorldsandCenturies


The Mouth by pitnerd
Ken Hamfisted by pitnerd


The path is calling your name by DarkVikingMistress


Random Photo 11 by gnhtd


Wilhelm Pieck and Otto Grotewohl- Creation of SED by RedAmerican1945

I'm on YouTube.
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   What makes me an expert? I'm ethnically Jewish (though atheist), I was raised Jewish, was a believing, practicing, religious Jew, went to Jewish schools for twelve years, and my parents are Orthodox.  I know the people, the culture, the history, the customs, and the sensibilities of Jews and Judaism. I know the scriptures, and have studied them both in English and the original Hebrew and Aramaic, as well as the doctrines and dogmas built up around them. I don’t claim to be the world’s foremost expert, but I can offer insight on a doctrinal and experiential level, informed as someone who has seen the religion from both the inside and out.

You submitted your questions about Judaism, now here are the answers.

The-Legionary1 asked: “What kind of reaction did you get when people found out you were Jewish?”

   Usually mild curiosity. Many people’s only knowledge of Judaism are from seeing ultra-Orthodox Jews in the news, media, or pop-culture, and I’d sometimes get questions about why I didn’t look like the Jews they’d seen in the news. As it turns out, ultra-Orthodox Jews, the kinds you’d see in parts of Brooklyn, or in parts of Jerusalem, are a small minority among Jews. My ninth grade bus driver once asked me if I was indeed Jewish, because he said, I didn’t “look Jewish.” He meant it as a compliment, and I took it as one.  I’ve never experienced any overt bigotry or discrimination.

Anonymous also asked: “How did your family feel when you left the faith?”

   My dad is the only one who really cared. My mom was perfectly okay. My dad has attempted on multiple occasions to convince me that god exists, and that Judaism is true, and each interaction ends within two minutes, with him figuratively backed into a corner from which he’s reduced to responses like “well you have to believe something!” The rest of my extended family is Jewish as well (I have a couple Christian relatives by marriage), however they are for the most part either completely non-religious or moderate, and none of them really cared much either. Atheism and agnosticism is rather common in Jews, who generally continue identifying as Jews even after they’ve discarded their belief. Christopher Hitchens, himself a half-ethnic Jew, once remarked, looking through history at all of the deistic, agnostic, or atheistic Jewish thinkers, that “there must be a gene in Jews for atheism.” He said that tongue-in-cheek, in reality it’s a product of 1) Jewish culture’s emphasis on education 2) the reform movement of the 19th century that offered a more liberal and moderate version of Judaism (most Jews today are reform), and 3) the Holocaust, which violently disabused many Jews of the notion that they're the "chosen people."

The-Legionary1 also asked: “What led you to leaving? And how did you feel afterwards?”

   My religiosity peaked at age ten, plateauing until I was about fourteen, at which point it began to gradually wane. The austere and draconian restrictions of Jewish law - which are more complicated, comprehensive, and strict than people, even Jews not raised in it, cannot truly wrap their minds around - butted up against a modern American teenager's desire to have a life, and life won out. To be a religious Jew, you literally cannot have a life, Judaism must be your life. The more I learned about my religion, the more unreasonable it seemed; the absurd, micro-managing, neurotic laws and commandments seemed to me unbefitting a being of the kind of complexity, vastness, and intelligence that any god worth the title must surely be. Jewish law prescribes the manner in which to wipe yourself after going to the bathroom, how to tie your shoes, which order to put your shoes on, a prayer for every occasion, seeing a rainbow, eating bread, taking a shit. I wish I were kidding. In short, the man-made fabrication of Judaism was made very clear to me during the course of high school. And if Judaism is made up, so too are Christianity and Islam, since they are built upon the Jewish mythology. I graduated high school a non-religious theist. In college I majored in film, which meant I really didn't take many courses in science, philosophy, etc. It wasn't until senior year that I began thinking more deeply about religion, god, and more philosophical kinds of things. I began reading books on science and philosophy, watching lectures, talks, debates, panel discussions, reading articles. I isolated every reason I had believed in a god, and was able to either disprove it, or cast enough doubt on it to render it unreasonable to draw conclusions from. By the time I gradated, a month before my twenty second birthday, I was agnostic. Six months later, at twenty two, I realized what far too many fail to, that agnosticism and atheism are not mutually exclusive, that saying you're an atheist is not a statement of certainty or knowledge, and I reclassified myself as an atheist. 
   From the end of my most religious period to my official atheism was nine years. In the end, I was a naive, trusting child who believed the myths I was taught, and the persistence of my belief in them lasted as long as it did in large part because I was deliberately deprived of the knowledge, information, and skills which would have torn them down (I graduated high school not even knowing what evolution or the big bang were, to cite a single example). Had I received a proper science education with some grounding in philosophy, I would have been an atheist at ten. I never had an emotional attachment, I never used god or religion as a crutch, and I never really had true faith. I thought my beliefs were correct because there was good reason and evidence for it. I was wrong, and my lack of an emotional attachment, coupled with my innate personality, allowed me to discard them without regret, anguish, or a backwards glance.

DarkVikingMistress asked: “Can you explain what the dietary codes of Judaism are and what foods you can eat with what etc?”

   There is a word in Hebrew - and I can’t for the life of me remember it - that is used in Jewish theology to denote a special class of commandments for which no practical reason exists; things God wants us to do for seemingly no reason but to test our faith. The Jewish dietary laws, known as kashrut, fall into this category. There have been many who have offered post-hoc rationalizations with regard to possible health benefits of the kosher diet, but they are not accepted theologically by Jews, but rather as a side benefit. In reality, there is nothing more intrinsically healthy about being kosher, despite the protestations of religious Jews.
   This is the simplest explanation of the laws I can produce: For mammals, only animals that have both split hooves and chew their cuds (denoting ruminant animals who regurgitate and re-chew food) are permissible to eat. This means cows, deer, lambs, for example, and no pigs. For birds, birds of prey or carrion birds are forbidden. Birds like Chickens, Turkeys, Ducks, etc are okay. Mammals and birds must also be slaughtered in a special way, which involves having their throats ritualistically slit with a sharp blade. If they are not slaughtered in such a way, their meat is not kosher. For fish and seafood, only that which has both fins and scales can be eaten. Most fish are therefore okay, but not sharks, sea mammals, invertebrates, shellfish, or crustaceans. Fish do not need to be slaughtered in any special way. Dairy and eggs are permissible if produced from a kosher animal. Dairy is not however to be mixed with meat or poultry. If you eat dairy, you must wait at least ten minutes before eating meat. When you eat meat or poultry, you must wait at least three hours before eating any dairy. They are never to be eaten together, So no cheeseburgers, for example.
   These rules and restrictions are strict in and of themselves, but we’re only just getting started. In addition, all non-produce (such as raw fruits or vegetables, with some exceptions), must be certified kosher or Orthodox (and more religious Conservative) Jews will not eat it. You may notice on some of your food packages a symbol of the letter “U” within a circle. This is known as OU, which stands for the Orthodox Union, an origination that is recognized as the gold standard for kosher certification. There are other such organizations as well, but none as large or universally trusted as OU. If it’s not marked kosher, they won’t eat it. Similarly, restaurants must be certified kosher as well. An Orthodox Jew won’t eat food from a kitchen that ever had unkosher food in it, won’t eat food produced in a factory that ever had unkosher food in it, unless the place was completely cleaned to the satisfaction of a rabbi who can certify it, and that rabbi, or the organization he belongs to, must be up to snuff in the Orthodox community as well. There’s this almost psychotic spy-vs-spy oneupmanship in Orthodox Judaism where people try to out compete one another on who can follow the rules to the nth degree, or the nth degree squared. My dad recently declared he won’t eat broccoli unless it’s special broccoli certified by rabbis to be free of any tiny bugs. He’s also said he’ll no longer eat at kosher restaurants that aren’t regularly rechecked by rabbis. Many vegan restaurants - since vegan food is by definition kosher in almost all cases - get certified to widen their appeal, but if they aren’t regularly being checked up on, strictly Orthodox Jews won’t eat there. There are also some laws regarding farming, and certain years farmers are supposed to take off. This applies most to wine, in my experience, and if the vineyard didn’t abide by these rules, Orthodox Jews won’t drink the wine. Wine!

DarkVikingMistress also asked: “How strict is Orthodox Judaism about dating, sex, and marriage? How would you compare it to the mores of Christianity and  Islam?”

   Orthodox Jews do not touch members of the opposite sex outside of their spouse, and not until they have a spouse. No sex, no foreplay, no kissing, no hugging, not even a handshake. You’re allowed to make basic bodily contact with immediate relatives, you can hug your parents, for example. My sister, who was sent to a different high school than I was, one that was extremely strict, was once reprimanded merely for being in a classroom with a boy with the door closed.  Just existing in the same space with door closed is forbidden. I was threatened with detention once for being seen holding hands with a girl in the hallway. I’d have liked to see the looks on their faces if they knew what we’d gotten up to in the basement (our school had a basement level which was largely unused, where students went to be unsupervised). The most that Orthodox Jews do as teenagers is the equivalent of internet dating. Most get married young, being so sexually pent up that they either marry the first willing person they can find or explode. Many such marriages are semi-arranged, where Jews go to these designated matchmakers who set them up with people. These people get married without having ever touched another member of the opposite sex, or even asked one out.  There are all sorts of rules and regulations for sex, apparently you must be fully naked with no other clothing, and missionary only. No condoms, there’s some debate on birth control pills for women. You cannot have sex during a woman’s period, or in the time just near it, in fact men and women cannot even share a bed during this time. Primitive religion has always regarded the female reproductive system with a mixture of fear, revulsion, and mystified awe. Premarital sex, (male) masturbation, and other such fun stuffs are naturally forbidden. Jews are much stricter than Christians, probably in the same ballpark as Muslim fundamentalists in this regard. Very repressed, and very unhealthy.

DarkVikingMistress also asked: “When you were Jewish, did you hear about the various anti Jew conspiracy theories where Jews control everything and are secretly Satanic and evil? If you did back then, what did you think about it back then? Would you find them more insensitive back then than now?”

   I did not frequently encounter them. I knew of their existence, of course, and I obviously knew that they were not true (many are traceable to historical fabrications like “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”). I regarded them for what they are; bigoted lies to scapegoat a minority group, and believed and propagated by disillusioned, disgruntled ignoramuses who don’t want to shoulder any responsibility for their own failures, and lack of success and fulfillment in life. This kind of person is the bread and butter, the rank and file that cooks up, consumes, and regurgitates conspiracy theories of all kinds. I find them more abhorrent now than I did then, knowing more about history, and having an overall worldview much more sensitive to injustice and bigotry in general. Moral people who are historically literate say “never again,” with respect to atrocities and genocides because we know that history can repeat itself if we do not remember and learn from it, and if we fail to remain vigilant.

DarkVikingMistress also asked: “Were you taught anti-Muslim bigotry and was it significant in Orthodox Jewish culture?”

   Yes. It is commonly believed among religious Jews - more so as you climb the ladder of religiosity and Orthodoxy, and especially among Israeli Jews - that Muslims are the enemy, that they want to wipe the Jews out, to drive Israel into the sea, etc. Unfortunately, this sentiment is not without some basis in reality, as anti-semitism and genocidal Jew-hatred is sadly prevalent across the Muslim world. Even so, many religious Jews do not make distinctions, they paint with a broad brush, and they regard Muslims generally with wariness and some level of hostility. Specifically, I was taught the history of Israel from a very one sided perspective which always portrayed the Palestinians, and their Muslim-Arab neighbors - as the bad guys, the ones who break agreements, violate treaties, attack first, use underhanded tactics, etc. Again, this is not entirely baseless, but the degree to which Israel has acted unjustly and has contributed to the many problems in the region were completely glossed over. I was taught some untrue and bigoted things about Muslims and Arabs as a child. There is a sense of mutual dislike, to put it mildly, between Muslims and Jews, an us-vs-them mentality. I was able to dismantle it over the years as I grew less religious, as I learned more, experienced more, and thought more deeply about such matters. One of the most important concepts we must grasp in our quest for both intellectual honesty and morality is to separate ideas from those who hold them. As Muslim reformer Maajid Nawaz says, "no idea is above scrutiny, and no people are beneath dignity." All we can do is to be honest, to acknowledge bigotry we were taught, to confront it, to unravel it, move beyond it, and help others to do so, but without sacrificing the crucial ability to criticize bad ideas.

joeisbackass asked: “Is it considered forbidden at least in some Jewish sects to use terms like Jehovah and Yahweh to refer to God, because I was under the impressions that these were the names ascribed in the religious texts to refer to him, but in at least ancient times use of the term Yahweh was forbidden.”

   It is said in Judaism that God has 70 names. We know a few of them, but most are believed to be hidden. The Hebrew versions of Yahweh and Jehovah are not spoken by Jews to this day. When reciting prayers, these names are read as “Adonai,” and when not reciting a prayer, God is referred to as “Hashem” (Hebrew for “The Name.”) Religious Jews do not even say the English word “God,” nor do they write it, instead writing “G-d.” Most of these rules come from a desire not to take God’s name in vain, and are exacerbated by religious spookiness and mystical thinking.

joeisbackass also asked: “Do Jews disbelieve in a form of Hell, and if so what then is Sheol supposed to be?”

   There is some confusion on this subject among people outside of the Jewish community. In the Torah itself (the Old Testament), there is very little mention made to the afterlife in general. The dead tend to be regarded as dead, and only occasional references are made to “Olam Ha-Ba” (“the world to come”), which could seemingly just as well refer to a future state of our world as it could an afterlife. Judaism however, is not merely based on the Torah. In addition to the Torah, there are the Commentaries (the canonically accepted interpretations of scripture, principally written by the French medieval Torah commentator rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (abbreviated to Rashi)) and the Talmud (Jewish law, inspired by the Torah, passed down orally and recorded primarily in the 5th century CE).
   While the scripture itself is ambiguous, the totality of canonical Jewish literature concludes that yes, there is an afterlife, a heaven (Gan Eden) and a hell (known as Gehenom). I was taught that hell is not a place of torture and fire as is commonly believed by Christians and Muslims, but rather a place of spiritual cleansing, though the cleansing process may be unpleasant. Some Jews do have a somewhat more fire-and-brimstone conception of hell, but not to the degree seen in other Abrahamic faiths. I was also taught that everyone, save the most depraved sinners, will eventually have their souls cleansed and will be admitted to heaven. So it’s more like a prison where you’re rehabilitated before going to heaven, but the worst offenders get life (eternity) in prison. 
   Sheol was what early Israelites and Jews believed the afterlife to be. They believed it to be a literal subterranean realm beneath the Earth’s surface where the dead dwelt, similar Hades in Greco-Roman mythology. Modern Jews no longer believe in this concept.

Auwinhawk asked: “Is Judaism the opposite of Protestant Christian Religion?”

   No. The opposite of Protestantism, if it has an opposite, would be Catholicism. Judaism is a separate religion, an older religion from which Christianity was an offshoot. Think of Judaism is like the father, and Christianity, divided into Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity, and Protestantism as the children.

Anonymous asked: “Have you ever been to the holy land Jerusalem and what that was like?”

   I have. Three times, the first of which was for my Bar-Mitzvah which was held at the Western Wall itself. Jerusalem is an immensely interesting place. It radiates a sense of age, of history, you can literally see the strata of civilizations piled on top of one another like layers in shale.  The city is divided into four quadrants, the Jewish quarter, the Christian quarter, the Muslim quarter, and the Druze quarter. During my three visits to Jerusalem, I spent time in the Jewish and Christian quarters.  The culture, the food, the diversity, the history, past and present is all around you. The gates of the Old City bear bullet holes from Israel’s recent wars in past decades, and soldiers patrol the streets, and yet there is a sense of calm, of nonchalance. A truly unique place in the world.

Anonymous asked: “I’d like to know how Jews look upon people belonging to other religions, and especially atheists? Are there any quotes or guides in the Torah as to how Jews should treat 'nonbelievers'? And how widely are these guides, if any, followed?”

   Judaism is not a missionary faith. You’ll notice their conspicuous absence from your doorstep on weekend mornings. Jews are not interested in trying to convert anyone, and prospective converts are turned away, having to ask several times before they are allowed to convert. Jews believe that any monotheist can go to heaven if they obey the seven laws of Noah, which can be summed up as the ancient Middle Easterners conception of simply being a decent person. Polytheists and atheists are viewed as sinners who will go to hell, though as stated in a previous answer, not permanently. The notion of “just one god,” is at the very core of Judaism, it’s repeated so endlessly in prayer and is so shot through Jewish theology as to be inseparable and non-negotiable to them. There are some very troubling passages in Leviticus about if someone should try to convert you to a foreign god, you’re supposed to kill them, their family, and everyone in their entire town, including the animals. The books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy in specific contain many such moral abominations, and are in some ways worse than anything to be found in any religion. Jews however do not live by such rules. It is believed in Judaism that when religious laws conflict with the laws of the land, as such injunctions surely are, then the law of the land is to be followed until such time as the Messiah comes and the official Jewish high court and supreme council known as the Sanhedrin is established once again in Jerusalem. At that time, all of the mind-bogglingly stupid and evil Old Testament laws will be put back into practice, so say Jewish fundamentalists.
   There is very little in the way of violent or hostile intolerance, bigotry, or backlash against atheists or non-believers. There are some neighborhoods in parts of Israel such as Mea She’arim where crazy Haredi Jews (one of the most ultra-Orthodox sub-sects) will literally assault people they deem unfit or not religious enough to be in their territory, almost like a religious gang, throwing rocks or even dirty diapers at them, among other obscene indignities. Generally speaking, such things are rare in Judaism.

Anonymous also asked: “Since you can’t speak for all Jews, should you limit your answers to your own general experience from the Orthodox environment?”

   I was raised in the Conservative sect (one step below Orthodox in religiosity and fundamentalism), though my parents have long since become Orthodox. Many of my relatives and childhood friends and peers were reform, and my teachers growing up ran the gamut as well. So I have a sound grounding in all of the major sects of Judaism, from my own experience, but also from my education.

ShadowofWOPR asked: “Why are Jews still averse to pork when that rule was created pre-refrigeration technology.”

This question presupposes that the kashrut laws, at least pertaining to pork, were created purely for health reasons. They weren’t. Pigs are viewed as spiritually unclean in Judaism, and it’s therefore not a matter of refrigeration. Only a reinterpretation of the Torah/Commentaries/Talmud which is made canonical, or God himself overriding these rules will change religious Jews’ views with regard to pork. Hard to say, knowing Jews as I do, which one would be less likely.  Jews are big on tradition, and don’t lightly give it up.

themutantlizard asked: “What are some superstitions Jews have about evil spirits?”

   There aren’t many. There’s a facet of Judaism at the margins of its cannon and theology called Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, whose central text, the Zohar, goes into such things. Some people consider Kabbalah to be its own religion, some consider it to be part of Judaism, and others think it’s in between. There are all sorts of spooky beliefs and ideas in it, of which I cannot speak to with much detail. There are certain rituals one can perform which are believed to offer one a glimpse or even gateway into the demonic realm, and some things I once read while researching a paper on it in high school indicated that some aspects of these realms are believed to lie outside of God’s domain, and therefore beyond his power. When I presented this to my teacher, an Orthodox rabbi, he didn’t correct me. I once endeavored to read the Zohar out of curiosity, but was dissuaded by its ridiculous length. Most of the Jews and rabbis I’ve met in my life regard Kabbalah and the Zohar as sort of forbidden knowledge that shouldn’t be meddled with. Judaism believes in magic, but treats it as generally evil.

snowpuff77 asked: “Here's one question that haunts me. Twice I've been told by my religious branches (the ones that believe Jesus is the Savior) that we don't have animal sacrifices (the way the bible always mentioned) anymore because Jesus did away with it by being the ultimate sacrifice. Understanding that Judaism believes Jesus was only a prophet (or so I heard), where does the Jewish religion stand on animal sacrificing? (they don't seem to do it anymore either, but what's THEIR side of the story for discontinuing it?)”

   Jews believe that ancient Israelites were in some respects a product of their time. The way Jews spin it is that people used to engage in human sacrifice, and that God had the Israelites engage in animal sacrifice instead, and sort of weened them off of it. The animal sacrifice in the Torah (Old Testament) is therefore viewed as a transitional practice engaged in long ago as the savage Israelites were ushered into civility, led by God, and that it’s no longer relevant to modern Judaism.

victauron asked: “Which aspects of Judaism do you find the most appealing and which do you find the most repugnant?”

   Most appealing: the fact that Judaism is not a missionary faith. They keep to themselves for the most part, and do not try to convert people and “save their souls.” 
   Most appalling: The mind-numbing plethora of religious rules, laws, customs, and prohibitions; how neurotic they are in their strictness and specificity, and how much control they have on the lives of those who believe them. It’s totalitarianism of the mind. As far as I’m concerned, the psychological community should classify Orthodox Judaism as a mental illness.

Thanks to everyone who submitted questions! Hopefully this will be of some use to those curious about such subjects.

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Another video I made years ago, re-uploaded to my current YouTube channel.

If you enjoyed this, you may also like:
Tolerance, Respect, and Courtesy by AmericanDreaming

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This is a video I made back in September 2010. It's still very much relevant, so I've uploaded it to my YouTube. Enjoy.

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At the outset, I'd like to disclose my biases on this subject insofar as they are known to me. Having been raised Jewish, privately educated at Jewish schools, and visiting Israel three times, my understanding of the Israel/Palestine debate was quite one-sided for many years. In truth, much of what I had been taught about the history of the modern state of Israel was tinged not only with a bias, but with clear anti-Muslim and anti-Arab bigotry. These sentiments were mirrored and reinforced by my peers and my family. This is the tribalism that was drummed into me, and unraveling it is often painstaking, but necessary not only ethically, but for any serious analysis of this issue. Though understandable, I find it depressing Jews and Muslims so reliably line up on opposite sides of this issue - often with unequivocal fervency - solely as a product of ape-like tribalism. The fact that nuance falls on deaf ears, and that those few who break from the herd to voice dissenting views are quickly labelled as sellouts, traitors, or worse, only deepens the problem that much more.

On History, and "Who Started it"

I want to address this first, because I find this aspect of the Israel/Palestine issue to be not only the least interesting, but also the least relevant. I realize how insensitive this must sound to the people on the ground who are affected by this bloody, generations-spanning feud, for whom questions like "who started it?" are of paramount importance. Such people are, I believe, too close to the issue to have anything approaching objectivity. My view, which is largely a dispassionate, big-picture perspective, is one in which a close examination of who started what or who wronged whom, while being important to understanding the conflict of today, is a rabbit-hole of blame and grievances that will advance us no closer toward any solution.

History is replete with conquests, occupations, subjugation, colonialism, etc. The land that today is called Israel has at various times been ruled, occupied, owned, or controlled by the British, the Ottomans, the Byzantines, Romans, Greeks, Persians, Babylonians, and many others. History has a way of digitizing the legions of the slain into mere facts and figures, impersonal statistics that evoke little emotional response, whereas the transgressions committed and indignities suffered within living memory stand out like livid bruises, with painful sensitivity to match. People have been killed, occupied, expelled, ethnically cleansed, and brought to the land called Israel/Palestine from time immemorial. I see no reason why our retracing of the dominoes always seems to stop in 1948 as though it were somehow the big-bang of Israel; a time before which there was any concept of cause and effect. 

Why such fervent bloodshed and animosity should swirl around a tiny patch of desert the size of New Jersey - and practically the only part of the Middle East bereft of oil - is a testament to the powers of religious imbecility. The notion that the fictional bully of the Old Testament decided to test his hand as a real estate broker and start doling out land to people is one which should not outlive the belief in Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, or monsters under the bed. Equally so for notions that Allah or the prophet has claimed such land forever as rightfully belonging to Islam. I am, at bottom, ultimately unconcerned with "who started it," or with which imaginary friend promised what to whom in the days when the most pressing societal concerns seemed to center around how best to curb the scourge of idol worship, when moral codes made frequent reference to settling livestock disputes, and the proper way to treat one's slaves and female chattel. No, I am principally concerned with the here and now, in maximizing well-being, flourishing, freedom, liberty, human rights, peace, stability, and progress. If you prefer the former to the latter, I'm afraid you and I will only be speaking past one another.

On Societal Differences and their Real-World Consequences

The task then falls to us to determine which philosophy, which mode of governance, which way of being, and which set of values will best maximize human flourishing. Which will best produce the kind of society conducive to a high quality of life, personal fulfillment, and prosperity? Our choices could not possibly be more distinct. If given the option between an open, liberal, pluralistic, technological, Western democracy, and the alternatives as seen throughout the Middle East, which should be chosen? Which would be preferable from the utilitarian standpoint of the greatest good for the greatest number? Is this truly a legitimate dilemma? Is there really a debate as to whether dictatorships or sham-democracies are preferable to democratic, representative governments? Can we truly not make heads or tails as to whether it would be better to live in a full-blown theocracy or not, or to have basic rights, freedoms, and liberties or not? To even ask these questions seems nonsensical. And yet, throughout many parts of the Middle East and the Muslim-majority world, things like women's rights, LGBT rights, minority rights, tolerance of unpopular views, treatment of atheists/secularists, and the basic standards of living resemble something out of a time warp from the Dark Ages. To prefer such regressive squalor to Western modernity, to even be unsure as to which is better, or indeed even to know which we'd prefer, but not to say so for fear of giving offense is tantamount to admitting that we truly know nothing about what makes us happy, and well, and fulfilled as a species.

Israel is far from a perfect country. They have made mistakes, they have committed war crimes, and have at times responded to terror, violence, or the threat thereof with disproportionate force. Their current administration is more hawkish and politically conservative than I would prefer. The alternative however puts this starkly into perspective. Where else in the Middle East can there be a gay pride parade? Indeed, where else in the Middle East can one be openly LGBT, or atheist, or merely non-Muslim, and not be taking significant risk from their governments, neighbors, and even friends and family? You might ask the Zoroastrians how minority religions are treated in Muslim-majority nations, the only problem is finding any left. Better to ask the Yazidis, but make it quick before they're all gone too. Where else in the Middle East could a Jew serve in parliament as Muslims do in Israel? Where else in the Middle East could quadrants of major cities be designated to minority faith communities? In fact in the Muslim world, we see the opposite. Many Muslim holy sites are closed to non-Muslims, and the violation of this rule can forfeit one's life or even precipitate wars. Where else is one free to question authority openly, to ask dangerous questions? Where else in the Middle East can one live free from the sadistic constraints of government enforced morality police, or from draconian punishments for imaginary crimes? Be honest with yourself. Which of these societies, these cultures, these ways of living will more reliably contribute positively to the collective human experience on this world? Shall we reverse the clocks, turn back time, snuff out the lone candle of modern, Westernized democracy, leaving the values and practices of the 7th century a hegemony over a sixth of the planet, all because Israel/Jews/Zionists/Western imperialists "started" it?

On a Path to Peace

It would be more than a little arrogant of me to presume to have the perfect solution in hand to the seventy year quandary of Israel/Palestine where so many have failed over the decades. What I can do is to echo the common wisdom that the only viable path to peace involves a two-state solution. Israel needs to exist, as does Palestine, side-by-side. While I argue that the values of Western nations such as Israel are far more preferable to those of Muslim-majority ones, the only pragmatic environment in which the seeds of peace can be planted is one involving two states. It may be, in the final analysis, that religious tribalism will uproot any such attempts. It may be that some hatreds run too deep, but for peace to even have a chance, this seems the only fertile ground on which to start.

Making this happen would necessitate more concessions on Israel's part than on Palestine's, since it is Israel that holds most of the land, power, and leverage. The problem lies in facilitating this. Israel has little impetus to make these concessions. Sure, it would be a public relations victory, however past experience suggests it may only be a modest one. Israel seems to be held to an unusually high standard of conduct, being given quite a short leash by the international community. Mistakes are sometimes made, lines sometimes crossed, but the outrage, condemnation, grievance-mongering, and boycott campaigns are disproportionate to the crimes. Few countries pay such a steep price from the global community for their blunders or overreactions in defending themselves. Keeping that in mind, it seems likely that the honeymoon with the international community resulting from any two-state solution would be a rather short one for Israel, who would soon find itself under the microscope once again. Volumes could be written on why this is, and on the various factors that contribute to it, but such examinations lie outside the scope of this essay. At the end of the day, however, any such peace deal will have to involve Israel giving more than they get. Whether Israel will have the fortitude, moral courage, and magnanimity to do what is necessary remains to be seen.

Another obstacle on the road to a two-state solution is the uncertainty as to whether such an arrangement would in fact bring a halt to aggression, terror attacks, and hostilities. Past concessions or attempts therein have at times had little effect. The current political climate is not conducive to the success of any such efforts at the moment. The current government of Israel as run by the conservative Likud party and the hawkish prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have no incentive to push for peace. Netanyahu is a war-time leader. It's what he runs on, and it's what boosts his approval ratings, keeping him winning elections. The current Palestinian government is run by Hamas, a fundamentalist Islamist organization with a history of terroristic ties and behavior. The very charter of Hamas even contains Jihadist injunctions and expresses genocidal bigotry against Jews. I daresay that these are not the most rational actors to bring to the bargaining table, if they would even show up, and have any reasonable expectation that meaningful progress would be made, treaties signed, or promises kept. Until two more liberal parties run their respective sides, the path to peace will be all but invisible.

On the Counterproductiveness of Hyperbole, Bigotry, Hypersensitivity, and Careless Name-Calling

It is not difficult to notice how excruciating our discourse on this subject (and many others) has become. Israel and Palestine has become one of those issues where reasonable, honest conversations are almost impossible due to tribalism, religion, political affiliation/ideology, bigotry, accusations of bigotry, and identity politics. This is a large part of the reason why I've abstained from commenting for this long. One grows weary of navigating through the fecal tsunamis that such topics regularly summon. Worse, and even more exhausting, is wading through the tidal flow of opinion-zombies, the un-nuanced hordes, powered by unshakable certainty, impervious to reasoning or new information, who see this issue (and most others) as quite black-and-white, and anyone expressing less than one hundred percent agreement with them is viewed little different, regardless of degree. Oh, and they need not actually read your essay, watch your video, or take a moment to honestly absorb and understand your points. No, no, they already have everything figured out, all that's needed is for them to reveal their glorious truth to you in the form of profanity-laden, third grade reading level comments. But I digress. I want to address some of the clearest examples of attitudes and behavior that inhibit genuine discussion and the exchange of ideas on this subject.

Criticizing Israel is not the same as anti-Semitism. Nor, for that matter, is criticizing the political movement Zionism. Countries and ideas are not peoples. While it is true that many anti-Semites use "zionist" as a codeword for Jews, it should never be a knee-jerk reaction to assume so in any given case unless evidence is shown to the contrary. One can be both an anti-Semite and be anti-Israel, and one can be just the former, or just the latter. This is a common attitude among Jews, who are overwhelmingly pro-Israel, to consistently conflate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, and to regard any such critic as an anti-Semite solely on the basis of their criticism, whether they are in fact a bigot or merely someone that disagrees with them on this political issue. This tactic is reminiscent of (and yet greatly precedes) the antics of the "Regressive Left" and the "Social Justice Warriors" (SJWs), who routinely label anyone who disagrees with them as bigots and racists in order to delegitimize and silence them.

On the other hand, there are some who will conflate Israel and/or Zionism with Judaism for just the opposite reason. Some do this to push a narrative that the indignities imposed and war-crimes committed to Palestine by Israel (disregarding the many misdeeds by the other side) are in fact the fault of Jews, and that every Jew in the world bears some responsibility for this, and should in some way have to answer for it.  There is a disturbing trend of Muslim conservatives and Western far-leftists aligning ideologically. We are seeing the vitriolic dislike of Israel blending with the inability or unwillingness to separate Israel from Jews, so that this vitriol is in fact being directed at Jews. There is a line that must toed between honest, substantive criticism of ideas, and bigotry towards people. 

Furthermore, many critics of Israel are quick to equate the occupation with genocide, to draw comparisons between Israel and the Nazis, and so forth. This hyperbolic rhetoric is extremely unhelpful, not only because it is deeply insensitive toward Jews and their history, or that it unnecessarily stirs up strong emotions which can only impede reason, but because it's not even remotely true. We have seen truly fascistic regimes, we have seen real genocide. To compare the actions of Israel to that is to render such words meaningless. This is the kind of careless name-calling that gets us nowhere. Just as we should all shine a light on injustice, criticizing it tirelessly, so too should we take equal care not to draw false and dishonest comparisons. Just as we should condemn bigotry, so too should we take care not to cry wolf where there is none. The failure to do so will only devalue these problems and further degrade the quality of the debate.

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My new video. Click on it. Go on. Don't forget to give me a thumbs up and subscribe!

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I'm now on YouTube. See my inaugural YouTube video, "A Critique on Sam Harris' 'Violence Week' (from a fan)." Subscribe today!

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Last year I submitted "2014 - My Year in Books," where I shared some of the best books I'd read that year, and have decided to make this an annual tradition. Last year I was shockingly able to read 70 books, by far my personal record. This year I ended up with 35 books (mostly non-fiction, for whatever reason). I would like to share with you some of the highlights below. You can see the full catalogue here.  See also 2016.


"The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism" by A.C. Grayling. One of the most efficient, clearly laid out cases against religion and for humanism to be found, and certainly one of the best written. With every successive book of his I read, Grayling is quickly becoming one of my favorite writers. Full review here.

"Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now." by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Her strongest book to date, Hirsi Ali makes a rational case for the need of an Islamic reformation, and lays the ideological foundation for what needs to change and how. This is a book that needs to be widely read. Full review here.

"Islam and the Future of Tolerance" by Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz. This short book can be read in a single sitting, and consists, not of traditional prose, but of a dialogue between two people, one a scientist, philosopher, atheist, and outspoken critic of Islam, the other, a former Islamist turned Muslim reformer. This is what we need more of: honest conversations between people of differing viewpoints that don't descend into name-calling and personal attacks. Full review here.

"India Dishonored: Behind a Nation's War on Women" by Sunny Hundal. A concise and eye-opening analysis of the problems women face in India today. Tremendously informative for how short it is. Full review here.

"So You've Been Publicly Shamed" by Jon Ronson. This delves into the realm of public shaming, specifically focusing on the internet and social media. Ronson also goes into the psychology and after-effects of public shaming. This is one of those rare books that will not only change your mind, it will change your behavior. This should be required reading for every internet user. Full review here.

"The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind" by Michio Kaku. For my money is the best science communicator out there, Michio Kaku hits every mark looked for in science writing with this one; you'll learn, think, wonder, and imagine. Full review here.

"The Caged Virgin: An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam" by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. A fearless and impassioned treatise on Islam and its treatment of women. Full review here.

"In Defense of Women" by H.L. Mencken. The title of this book is wildly misleading, as this isn't a defense of women or women's rights in any sense. Mencken's views of women actually seem, viewed in isolation, highly misogynistic. His view of women is one of distrust, envious resentment, and grudging admiration. As to men, Mencken carves larges swaths of space out and devotes them to the systematic evisceration of men; of their pretenses, their delusions, their sentimentality, and their general and overwhelming stupidity and foolishness. Parts seem very dated (being written in the 1920's), and there are aspects of his views that were common at the time but which we would now soundly repudiate. That said, there are many insights to be had, and as always, Mencken's razor sharp wit and command of the English language are always worth the price of admission. Full review here.


"Shadows of Self" by Brandon Sanderson. A pulse-pounding fantasy-detective story, liberally infused with mystery, intrigue, and action. This is book five in his "Mistborn" series, and I would obviously recommend new readers to begin with book one. Full review here.

Worth a Read

The following is a quick list of some additional titles which, though they don't number among my favorites, are nevertheless important books well worth reading.

"The Kalevala" compiled by Elias Lönnrot. Full review here.
"The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry" by Jon Ronson. Full review here.
"1000 Lashes: Because I Say What I think" by Raif Badawi. Full Review here.
"The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche" by H.L. Mencken. Full review here.
"On the Genealogy of Morals" by Friedrich Nietzsche. Full review here.
"A Fighting Chance" by Elizabeth Warren. Full review here.
"No Compromise with Slavery" by William Lloyd Garrison. Full review here.
"Utilitarianism" by John Stuart Mill. Full review here.

Most Disappointing Book

"The Name of the Wind" by Patrick Rothfuss. Wildly popular and highly acclaimed fantasy novel that didn't do it for me at all. Full review here.

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Full title: The Comprehensive Guide to Debating Theists, Religious Fundamentalists, Religious Apologists, Conspiracy Theorists, New-Agers, Believers in the Paranormal, and other Dogmatists. Part One.

Part two

    My Aim Here

This guide is intended to outline and explore the strategies, tactics, pros, cons, and limitations of debating, whether on the internet or in person. My concern here is primarily with debating dogmatists, from the standpoint of scientific skepticism, because the dogmatist, whatever form they might take, is making a truth claim. Arguments over truth claims are fundamentally different than arguments over morality or social utility, for example. The claim that Jesus was resurrected and will one day return to Earth, or that the apparent design of the universe necessitates a creative intelligence, or that bodies of extraterrestrials are being kept at area 51 are direct truth claims (X exists, or Y happened), and debates over such topics are somewhat different than debates about economics, foreign policy, or gun regulations. That being said, many parts of this guide will still be of use to those engaging in other forms of debate - politics or social issues, for instance - but my focus here is on debates about what is true, more so than what is good.

I have no experience in formal debating. I have never been on a debate team or belonged to a debate club, nor have I ever had an academic style debate in front of an audience. I have, however, engaged in hundreds of debates all over the internet over the past six plus years, and a great many in person (informally), over the course of my life. After enough repetitions, patterns begin to emerge. The same kinds of people overwhelmingly say the same kinds of things, and it becomes easy to predict or preempt your opponent's next words before they can even voice them. You gain insight into how they think, into why they think what they think, you gain a sort of intuition about how to direct a conversation so as not to end up in a the figurative weeds of insults and mud slinging, or into the ditch where each side "agrees to disagree." 

It is my belief (and hope) that this guide will prove worthwhile and useful to those who initiate or find themselves in debates.

  Why Debate in the First Place?

Scores of people have approached me over the years, expressing the sentiment that debating is pointless, a complete and utter waste of time that achieves nothing, and that nothing positive comes out of it. When I express my disagreement with them and explain why, it puts them in a supremely ironic conundrum. They can either ignore my response and let it stand unchallenged, or they can offer a rebuttal and thereby begin the hilarious process of debating me in order to prove that debating doesn't work. The question stands, why should we debate? Here's why:

  - To Change minds. This really is the primary reason for debating (or should be), the one from which all other reasons or benefits spring. This is the ultimate purpose. If you can change someone's mind, or even cause them to question or doubt their position, that is an accomplishment.

  - Debating is an extremely useful skill. The ability to argue effectively, to defend one's opinions, especially against concerted efforts to tear them down is an ability whose benefits are practically endless in many areas of life. The more you debate, the more efficiently and eloquently you learn to express yourself, and the more potent your criticisms become. The process will also necessarily refine your views themselves, especially when a contention you held is struck down, and no adequate response or defense - even afterwards and with the benefit of research - can be mounted. We all find ourselves in arguments, debates, negotiations etc on a daily basis. Developing this skill is hardly pointless.

  - For the enjoyment of it. There is something of a sporting, competitive nature to the back and forth exchange of points and arguments. The maneuvers used in order to pin your opponent to single point, and the one they use to squirm out of it, or to pivot to another issue is like a wrestling contest of minds. The flexing of wit and sparring of barbs is, to the so inclined individual, enjoyable, even exciting. It should be noted, however, that there are people who debate solely because they enjoy the sound of their own voice and for no other reason, often delving into debates over pointless or trivial matters, people who engage in excruciating nitpicking and agonizing over unproductive details, people who are debating simply for the sake of debating. We have all encountered these folks. Such people care little about changing minds, or even about the issues themselves. They are often juvenile, pseudo-intellectual time-wasters, trolls with a higher reading level, and should be generally avoided. Do not be such a person yourself. 

  Precepts for Debating

  - Do not debate on any subject or issue where you haven't honestly and objectively researched and considered both sides.

There are two sides to every coin, and it behooves you to know the other side's arguments going into a debate, not just your own. This is advantageous for many reasons. Learning and making a genuine attempt to understand the other side will offer insight into the way such people think, what they value, and what makes them tick, all things useful in trying to get through to them. A more accurate picture of other people's views will also lessen the likelihood that you will misunderstand or misrepresent them. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you may (occasionally), in this process of researching and contemplating the other side, come to think differently about it, to acknowledge some kernel of truth or valid point. This will refine and nuance your own views, and will save you time which might otherwise be wasted criticizing elements of their views which in truth do not warrant it or are extremely resilient to it.

  - Be cognizant of your biases, and open to the possibility that you may in fact be wrong about something.

None of us is in sole possession of all truth, knowledge, or reason. You may be mistaken about something. Do not succumb to pride or any kind of dogma of your own. If your opponent makes a valid point, concede it. If you make an argument which is demonstrated to be bogus, own it. There is no shame in this. Failure to admit when you are wrong is orders of magnitude worse than actually being wrong. And yes, on occasion, you may just be flat out wrong, sometimes even your entire side of the argument. If you strive to maintain a scientific worldview, this is very rare indeed (as pertaining to truth claims), but you may in fact hold certain beliefs which are not as scientific as you thought they were, or are perhaps defined too narrowly. Be aware of and challenge your own biases. Always reserve at least a small sliver of possibility that you could be the one who leaves the debate having had their mind changed. Be open-minded, but as the saying goes, not so open-minded that your brains fall out.

  - You are not debating to "win." You are debating to change minds. Never lose sight of this.

This is not a debate club competition or a political campaign. There are no real "points" to be scored. A zinger or a clever rhetorical move may well make you feel good about yourself, but if it's not likely to change anyone's mind, you're merely stroking your ego by using them. A debate that seemingly ends in a draw, but where your opponent leaves with the seeds of doubt in their mind is infinitely more of a victory than you "winning" the debate and/or humiliating or "burning" your opponent if they exit the debate unchanged and with further mental walls thrown up because of this interaction.

  - Know your opponent, and speak to them specifically.

I've observed countless internet debates where the party who is on the correct side not only fails to sway their opponent, in some cases pushing them further away, simply due to a failure of communication. This is less of an issue in person, since we can see and directly take in obvious characteristics of other people, but online, it is not always apparent who's on the other side. People are individuals, and knowing some basic details about your opponent, if possible, will determine which style, strategy, and approach is most appropriate. The relevant information you want to ascertain is the following: Age, level of belief (in dogma at hand), and reading level (look at other things they've posted). Disregard gender. Not only have I observed that males, females, and everyone else all debate and react more or less the same (in truth-claim debates, politics and social issues are another thing entirely), but any attempt to cater your arguments to the specific gender of your opponent is apt to backfire more readily than aid you. Please note these are generalizations, and many people are exceptions to the rule. Nonetheless, this is very useful.

Age: You do not debate a 50 year old the same way you debate a high schooler, not if you want a legitimate chance of getting through to them. Some degree of ageism (prejudging based on age) is advisable in debates. It is technically a form a prejudice, however, unlike all other forms of prejudice, its assumptions are true astonishingly often. Young people are overwhelmingly less knowledgeable and have less life experience than older people, and it's important to keep that in mind. Young people tend to be more overtly emotional, much easier to spook or drive away if a nerve is touched too deeply or a line crossed. Young people's opinions and views are also influenced much more heavily by their families and peers, since those two comprise basically their entire social network. If a young person has a negative view of something, it really can sometimes boil down to a single negative interaction they've had. Their views are, on average, less nuanced, more black-and-white, more simplistic. Should you choose to inform a young person of any of these things, do so with the utmost of subtlety. They're like biological land-mines, and if triggered, they can be deeply alienated, harboring resentments toward specific ideas simply due to the dislike of people they've encountered who held them.

Older people are different. Their perspectives on things will be often shaded by the families of their own they have, which in some cases can lead them to be more irrational than young people. They'll almost always know more about current events, about history, politics etc (compared to young people, not you per se) and be better read, more well-rounded (no pun intended). Older opponents can still be susceptible to black-and-white us-vs-them thinking, but will on average tend to be a bit more nuanced than young people. They will also be reliably more closed-minded. It is said that age brings wisdom. That may be true (in some cases), but it also brings a kind of arrogance. The older say of the young - in stunning bit of projection - that young people claim to know everything and have the world all figured out. There are a good many young know-it-alls, however in my experience, sitting at the very tail end of being a "young person," it is older people who generally think they know it all, or at least everything worth knowing. The longer one holds a belief, the deeper its roots take hold in the mind, and the more difficult it becomes to change. Belief becomes habit, it becomes a way of life, and the admission of error is viewed by some as the admission that one has been wrong or has lived a lie for years, even decades. This is not easy. An older opponent will be harder to sway, but also less likely to blow up at you or storm away. If you are younger, as most of you are likely to be, it is not uncommon to be treated dismissively by older people. If this happens, challenge their intellect and nerve by portraying their scoffs as cowardly attempts to turn tail and run. They will often use their sense of age-superiority as a vehicle with which to flee with false-dignity from arguments that, if made to them in person by someone near their own age, would leave them babbling and stammering like fools.

Level of belief: This one is self-explanatory. The fact that the Bible condones slavery is a completely useless thing to bring up to a deist, for example. When it comes to the paranormal and conspiracy theories, try to get a bead on whether they are a hardcore believer, or a casual believer, someone perhaps open to these ideas, intrigued by them, but not a card-carrying member of the tinfoil hat brigade.

Reading level: If someone is as well-spoken and literate as you, let them have it. If you're dealing with someone far below your own level, simplify your language a bit. Otherwise, you'll be talking over their head, and they're likely to think you're an arrogant elitist pompous snob etc. Many find this "dumbing down" distasteful, but I've seen it work many times, and the opposite is little more than intellectual masturbation; you're the only one who gets anything out of it.

  - Remember the audience.

 If your primary goal in debating is to change minds, remember that your opponent is not the only other person who can potentially be swayed. Regardless of how stubborn and pig-headed your opponent is, others can see the debate and be affected. For this reason, it is generally inadvisable to debate people by via email, private messages, instant messages, texts, letters, phone calls, or any other kind of private setting, unless you plan to publish them afterwards (it is unethical to do so without the other person's consent). 

Another aspect to consider here is that an audience, aside from presenting a larger target, is also a tool which, if harnessed properly, can aid you in your debating. If you debate someone in a comment section, forum thread, message board, or some other public text-based venue, third parties can not only observe, but also join in. Virtually all people with even the most modest levels of sanity, education, and life experience are aware of certain notions, ideas, or modes of thought which are generally regarded as either crazy or evil. Do not allow your opponent to get away with any such transgression when a participatory audience is at hand. Be sure to point out and call attention to statements they make or aspects of their arguments/logic which are plainly absurd or immoral when applied to other analogous scenarios, for example. This is, in essence, a mild form a shaming, which I believe can be very effective in swaying people, but only if they feel the pressure of others watching and disapproving. There is a line to be towed here, and crossing it can make you appear a blowhard, or even a bully. Shaming is a dangerous thing. It can be useful in small, strategic applications, but large doses can be extremely harmful.

  - Keep your responses of reasonable length

A simple precept, but one that is too seldom followed. Nobody likes reading 3,000 word replies. Many, if not most people do not read them at all (this rarely stops them from replying, though). Save yourself, your opponent, and the audience the time and learn to communicate your responses in a more succinct manner. The ability to say a lot with relatively few words will serve you well, not just in debates, but everywhere.

  - Know when to stop

We've all been there, in one way or another. That point in the debate/argument where one or both sides has begun looping back around to the beginning, locked in a cycle of tedious reiteration. In cases like this, it's best just to sum up your position briefly and leave. When a debate gets to this point, nothing more productive can be done. Similarly, if your opponent has revealed themselves at some point during the debate to be a troll, or someone simply too unserious or immature to have any meaningful dialogue with, cut your losses. Note, this is often done unjustly by people unwilling or unprepared to defend their beliefs, or being cornered by their opponent. Opponents may occasionally try to pull this on you, painting you as a troll and using that as their out. Call them out on this, and make every effort not to make this same mistake yourself.

  Common Tactics of Dogmatists

When defending ideas or claims based on insufficient evidence, or when attacking the scientific worldview, dogmatists of all stripes really only have a handful of cards to play, and as you'll see, they are all somewhat related to one another. Here are the most common ones, why they are used, and why they fail.

  - You Can't Disprove X_(fill in the blank)

When there is no (credible) evidence to support their claims, dogmatists will often change gears, and instead of trying to prove that their assertions are true, they'll instead argue that you can't prove they're untrue. Whether it's the existence of god, a conspiracy theory, aliens molesting cattle and their farmers, expect to hear, in one form or another, the argument that you cannot definitively disprove these claims. This is in essence a form of deflection, and also a sign of desperation. If your opponent leads with this, it's a sign they have entered into the debate ill-equipped indeed. More often, this is trotted out once several points are made which they cannot rebut. 

Now technically, they are correct. It is virtually impossible to prove a negative. What must be pointed out is that this line of reasoning can be used to justify anything. Any argument or explanation which can justify anything equally, can in fact justify nothing. Draw this line for your opponent, show them the implications of this reasoning to other claims which they aren't likely to agree with. Illustrate its unreasonableness. When a Christian, for example, sees that their reasoning can just as easily be used to defend the claims of Ufologists and big-foot believers, there is the potential to create a moment of what philosopher Peter Boghossian calls "Doxastic Openness," where a moment of doubt crosses their mind, where the possibility of them being mistaken or erroneous becomes real for them, if only for an instant. My personal favorite is drawing the comparison to believing in leprechauns. Every so often, my opponent will surprise me by saying that they actually believe in leprechauns, or that it's not a stretch to believe in them (this has happened, to my recollection and astonishment, on five separate occasions). Should your opponent admit to believing in or being legitimately open to whatever purposefully absurd comparison you rhetorically drew up, then the debate need go no further. That's one of those "I rest my case," drop-the-mic-and-walk-away moments. Let their irrationality stand for all to see. Your opponents will sometimes defeat themselves. Let them, but don't pile on too much.

  - Misuse of Solipsism

Solipsism is the philosophical view that outside of our own minds, we cannot ultimately know anything. Most of your opponents will be unfamiliar with the term "solipsism," but will often use it in the form of a couple different arguments, all of which boil down to "We can't know anything" or "science doesn't know everything." When arguments like these are made, the conclusion either stated or implied is "and therefore my nonsense is no different than your sense." The moment the rational side begins talking about evidence, the dogmatist feels threatened. It will seem like you're attacking them from atop a perch, with the advantage decisively in your favor. After all, the evidence is on your side. Using solipsistic reasoning to devalue evidence and science is their attempt to drag you down to their own level, to muddy the waters, and the establish a false equivalency between faith-claims and science. "Neither of us can know anything, and science doesn't know everything, so we're both just believing stuff on faith, you're no different than I." This is horse shit, folks, but you probably shouldn't put it so bluntly in a debate :laughing:

It is to be recognized that knowledge as we know it cannot often be definitively proven with 100% accuracy, and that certain axiomatic assumptions do indeed lie at the very core of science. I would not go as far as to say solipsism is a reasonable view point, but it contains elements of truth, technically speaking, on a philosophical level. In the real world, however, the world outside of thought experiment, we do know quite a lot with a very, very high degree of accuracy. The moon really does exist. It can be observed, recorded, measured, analyzed, walked on, and confirmed in dozens of different ways which are verifiable, repeatable, and corroborated. Could it really just be an optical illusion, could we all be living in a computer simulation? Could everything you think you know exist in the daydreams of an infant silkworm (as George Carlin once mused)? Again, within the context of a philosophical discussion, these are (somewhat) interesting notions, but when applied to pragmatic truth debates, this is simply dishonest. First of all, most of your opponents do not actually hold to this solipsistic view in their life, to do so would cause one to be completely incoherent and insane. Trust me, the vast majority of them think the moon is just as real as you and I do. They're being dishonest and disingenuous. Co-opting solipsistic reasoning does not absolve one of the burden of proof that we all demand in every area of our lives. As an aside, you may occasionally run into someone who does identify as a solipsist, and debates with them will be quite frustrating. For any intelligible debate to be had, certain agreed upon ground rules must been in place, generally accepted truths that constitute the environment within which to have a debate. Debating someone on a truth claim who doesn't even believe in the concept of truth, and who is genuinely agnostic about the existence of planet earth, the laws of nature, and the whole of existence is not a rational actor. Nothing you will say, indeed nothing you (or anyone) can say will have the slightest effect on them.

We cannot know most things with 100% certainty, but do not allow your opponent to equate 99.9999% with the 50/50 "who could say?" probability that they're using to place their faith-claims on an even footing with science. Yes, science doesn't know everything, but it's demonstrably the best and most reliable thing, we've got, and our knowledge grows every day.

  - God (or other imaginary things) of the Gaps

This ties right into the previous tactic. Irrationality, superstition, and conspiratorial thinking arise and thrive within patches of ignorance, like fungi in damp darkness. Areas of scientific ignorance such as the origin of life or the cause of the Big Bang, or areas of political ignorance such as classified government projects are hotbeds for the kinds of bunk you're going to encounter. When science discovers something new, usually superseding preexisting irrational explanations, that territory belongs to science from then on. Science never cedes territory back to dogma. But until such time as there is a definitive, evidence-based explanation for something, dogmatists will take refuge in these pockets of mystery and ignorance. This lies at the very heart of virtually every religion, every faith, every supernatural or paranormal belief, and every conspiracy theory. You're likely to run into "God of Gaps" reasoning (even outside of god debates) in the overwhelming majority of truth-claim debates with dogmatists.

Saying things like "we don't know how or why the fundamental constants of the laws of nature exist in such a way so as to allow life, so a god must have done it," or "we don't know how this explosion or wreckage could have been melted/blown up in such a way, therefore conspiracy," are intellectually dishonest tactics. This is not to say that dogmatists tend to be liars (outside of to themselves in many cases), but these are the kinds of reasonings you will often encounter, rarely spelled out quite so bluntly, but amounting to the same thing. People - and we all do it at some point - have a tendency to utilize this "well what else could it be?" reasoning. I find myself thinking along these lines on an almost daily basis, usually involving very mundane matters, but I try to be mindful of it. This speaks to the human need for answers, and our fundamental discomfort with not knowing things, and our aversion to saying the three scary words "I don't know."

You need to point out when your opponent is using this fallacious line of reasoning, but be careful not to actually use the words "god of the gaps," as they have become trigger words that invoke automatic knee-jerk denials as well as mental barriers being thrown up in your opponent's mind. God of the gaps has become widely known enough that many if not most of the people you'll be debating will be aware of the term, and even if its core logic is the bread and butter of all their arguments, they still recognize the negative connotation this has as a known logical fallacy, and they'll refuse to accept that they're doing it. I've debated dozens of people who would say something that can literally be copied word for word and put into a philosophy text book under examples of god of the gaps fallacies, and when I told them they were using god of the gaps, not one single person ever owned up to it. Not one. Explain to them what they are doing, and lay out your reasoning for why it is dishonest and irrational, just avoid triggering their defense-mechanism and their mental shell. There are of course many areas of human and scientific ignorance. No body denies this. The honest thing to do is to admit that we don't know, and to work towards finding an answer. Ignorance never justifies making stuff up, or believing any old idea just because it's appealing, convenient, or comforting.

  - The Reversal of the Burden of Proof

When a claim is made, the claimant is responsible to provide evidence. This is known as the burden of proof. Dogmatists will sometimes reverse this burden by instead shifting it onto you, the skeptic, and demanding you to prove a negative (see "you can't disprove X" above). This bullet point is not so much outlining a specific tactic you'll encounter as much as a general mindset which runs through many dogmatist arguments, and that's that they often treat their belief as the default. The theist, for example, will treat the existence of a god as the default state of the universe, the starting point which, until disproven definitively or supplanted by an alternate explanation which has even more appeal for them, will remain the answer to all the cosmic questions in their mind. By doing this, they dodge having to prove their claims, and instead try to put you on the defensive. 

As scientific skeptics, we are not always "selling" something of our own. Often times we simply "aren't buying" what they're selling. This is important to keep in mind. A specific question or phenomenon may be unanswered, and we are not comfortable or prepared to make one up, but will instead admit ignorance. The dogmatist is apt to treat your lack of a suitable "alternative" to their dogma as proof that they must be right. Never allow them to do this. Remind them, as many times as it takes, that it is they who must meet the burden of proof. As Carl Sagan said: "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."

  - Ad Hominem's, Personal attacks, or Insults

To anyone who's spent any amount of time on the internet, this isn't unique to truth-claim debates with dogmatists by any stretch. We all run into this kind of stuff every day. If your opponent is excessively insulting you right off the bat, without any semblance whatsoever of an actual argument, you may feel free to engage them, but what's going on at that point isn't a debate, just a shouting match. Those can be fun, but for the purposes of changing minds it's unproductive and a waste of time.

If your opponent starts off with insults and actual arguments, then the tone is set, and you're within your right to launch a few barbs of your own. Taking the high road and debating respectfully against someone who has begun the exchange with insults can sometimes shame them into behaving themselves somewhat, and will provide any third parties with a stark comparison of your reasonableness versus their rudeness. Sometimes, you have to speak the language of your opponent, and if they aren't capable of being civil, you can communicate more effectively with them by slapping them around verbally a bit. Don't overdo it, never do it more than they do, and never be the first to do it. Use your own judgement.

If the debate starts off civilly, but descends into personal attacks, it is a sure sign of frustration on the side of your opponent. Do not dismiss them, don't act self-righteous or sanctimonious, just be aware of what is frustrating them, and continue, in a calm, methodical, and reasonable manner, to press the screws into them. If the insults get out of hand, asking them to calm down is fine, but you don't want to come off as preachy. As someone with a scientific worldview, you will be most commonly called arrogant, or some such synonym. When this inevitably happens, point out that you follow the evidence, that your mind can be changed, that you admit when you don't know, that you don't pretend to know things you don't. Point out everything in your opponent's beliefs that are arrogant. Demonstrate to them that they don't even understand the meaning of the word, and don't be shy about telling them they're projecting their own flaws onto you. Use your opponents insults against them like verbal jiu-jitsu.

  - Dismissal

If you break the civility of the debate by blatantly insulting your opponent, they are likely to dismiss you. Do not give them this excuse. Even if you are civil, however, your opponents will still often try to dismiss you. If you are the one who tried to initiate the debate, and your opponent dismisses you, then accept that. They don't want to engage. If your opponent comes to you, however, and it is they who starts the debate, it's a different story. Sometimes when a debate has run its course, it's easy to let a dismissal slide as both parties may be weary, but if someone comes to you, says something, you respond, and then they dismiss you, what they're doing is trying to slink away from the debate while preserving some semblance of dignity, to flee while saving face. Tell them that, in a manner of words. Remind them it was they who initiated this exchange, and administer a little bit of shaming to see how they react. Whether they blow up at you, they respond and it becomes a debate, or they ignore the comment, it's a win/win/win. If they blow up or ignore you, then people will see who is the more reasonable. If they engage you, that gives you an opportunity to change another mind.

Remember that dismissal, when it is they who started the debate, is a defense mechanism. When someone feels pressured, uncomfortable, or uncertain, they will look for anything as an out. When you act like an asshole, you give them a clear cut reason, but even if you don't they'll grasp at any perceived infraction of conversational educate and act as though you're too unreasonable to speak with. They'll call you close-minded, arrogant, that you're an extremist, a "militant," or a whole host of other charges designed to paint this delusional picture of them as this highly rational person with more important things to do, and you as a childish troll trying to waste their time. Like I said, a little bit of shame can work wonders here, but don't overdo it.

Continued in Part two.

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Islam and the Political Left: A Few More Thoughts

Please read my previous entry before this one.

In the run-up to her upcoming book Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now (see my review), atheist women's rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali has been making the customary media appearances that authors do to help publicize and market their books. In doing so, she dredged up a small echo of the media/social media storm from last autumn which was catalyzed by an exchange between Sam Harris, Bill Maher, and Ben Affleck on Maher's HBO talk show "Real Time with Bill Maher."

One of the things I find so troubling is that I see people on the left, some of them quite prominent figures and people whom I admire, speaking on this subject in a way that can only be described as insane. I see people like Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who broke the Edward Snowden story and who has been an outstanding champion of privacy rights and civil liberties, and Cenk Uygur, host of "The Young Turks," and who has done tremendous work in the struggle to get money out of politics, engaging in the political equivalent of back-alley street fights with figures like Sam Harris, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Bill Maher, and Richard Dawkins, all four of whom are liberals themselves, because of their criticism of Islam. It's a worrying feeling to witness these increasingly vicious media/social media wars of attrition between people I admire and largely agree with on most topics.

What's more is that these people all agree on most issues themselves. On more than 95% of the issues of the day, you would find total agreement between all of the above mentioned people as well as the vast majority of participants in this embarrassing liberal infighting. Because of the 5% difference however, you get the Glenn Greenwalds, Cenk Uygurs, and Reza Aslans of the world smearing any who dare criticize Islam from the left as bigots, racists, Islamophobes, fascists, and neoconservatives. Any criticism of Islam is immediately conflated with a violent personal attack on every one of the world's 1.6 billion Muslims, down to the last man, woman, and child. Otherwise honest people will abandon their journalistic integrity and knowingly lie, distort, obfuscate, quote-mine, and misrepresent any who disagree with them even slightly. What am I to think when I see Glenn Greenwald, for example, repeatedly misrepresent and lie about those he disagrees with? His work covering the NSA and other intelligence agencies has been excellent, hard-hitting, and absolutely eye-opening, but when I see him behaving like a tabloid columnist with a personal grudge, it casts aspersions on his journalism as a whole.

The most lamentable aspect of this whole thing is that the only group of people who will speak honestly about Islam are those on the right. Many times they go too far, their criticism actually bleeding into bigotry, and not infrequently their criticism comes from a different place, and for different reasons, but by and large conservatives can look at the many problems in Islam and the Muslim world and call them as they see them without feeling uncomfortable. Robert Spencer, for example, is a prominent critic of Islam who is legitimately a conservative, and his criticism of Islam comes from a right-wing, Christian perspective, and much of what he says and writes can fairly be described as bigoted. To mention him in the same breath as Sam Harris is tantamount to slandering Harris.

I cannot put into words how depressing it is to be lumped in with neoconservatives. To be listed ideologically alongside people like Sean Hannity, Dick Cheney, and Robert Spencer makes me sick to my stomach. This also has the insidious effect of alienating liberals who are not overly engaged in or aware of this issue, as they'll see conservatives on one side and liberals on the other, and as we humans tend to do, will shut off their minds and let the group-think mentality settle them down with their own team.

What are your thoughts?

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The Racism of the Left: The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations

The need to criticize ideas is obvious; it weeds out poor ideas, and refines better ones, strengthening them, and alerts people to flaws and problems they may not have considered, etc.  Generally, the competition or marketplace of ideas creates an intellectual environment for positive societal evolution and progress.

An area of human thought that requires specific critical attention - as you may have noticed if you've seen my gallery - are dogmas: sets of ideas posited without evidence and taught as unquestionably true.  Dogmas are commonly to be found in the form of religions.  Dogmatism stifles free thought and inquiry, closing down avenues of knowledge and exploration.  Dogmas are divisive, oftentimes backwards and even dangerous.  They put forth and glorify older, more archaic and less sophisticated moral and philosophical systems, hindering in a very real way the ethics and functionality of those who adhere to them.  For this reason, even if one finds themselves convinced of a particular dogma's truth, it is strongly recommended that it be challenged, questioned, and criticized.

Over the past fifteen years, but especially within the past year, the topic of Islam, Muslims, and Islamophobia have been all over the news, blogosphere, and social media.  I am a liberal.  I pride myself on liberal values and principles of the enlightenment.  I am therefore dismayed to see so many of my fellow liberals readily abandoning their own liberal principles when it comes to the topic of Islam.  I am dismayed to see that my fellow liberals squeamishly abstain from criticizing Islam in a way they have no problem when the topic is Christianity.  I am dismayed to see that my fellow liberals have instead chosen to direct their energy, not at those who believe in and/or carry out harmful dogmas, but at those who criticism them.  Far from standing up for their very own values, the values that in my opinion make one a true liberal, things like freedom of speech, liberty, equality, fairness, and open inquiry, they fascistically seek to control, censor, and squelch the criticism of Islam in the name of "tolerance," "multiculturalism," and "respect."  They do this by conflating all criticism of ideas with an irrational and prejudiced hatred of peoples, and label offenders "racists," "bigots," or "Islamophobes."

I suppose I should briefly list the problems existing within Islam and Muslim culture that render it both harmful and fundamentally incompatible with the West, and the values that make us what we have become.  Throughout much of Islam, the Muslim world, and Muslim culture, knowledge, education, and information not relating to or stemming from Islam are put at a lower value.  In some cases they are explicitly shunned.  Individual freedoms and liberties are put at a lower premium.  Freedom of speech is not seen as an Islamic value, but a Western one.  Free inquiry, doubt, skepticism, and asking difficult questions are discouraged, regarded as sinful, and sometimes punished.  Women are treated as second class citizens if lucky, as outright property if not. Women are, in many places, not allowed to pursue careers, to work, to be educated, or even to leave their homes and enjoy basic freedoms without male chaperons.  Female genital mutilation occurs in vast numbers, as do arranged marriages and child marriages.  The prophet Muhammad himself - the man regarded as the most moral human to ever live by Muslims - took for one of his many wives a six year old, and had sex with her when she was nine.  The Muslim world is also deeply hostile to the LGBT community.  The sexual repression and deviation within Islam is stifling, primitive, and disgusting.

Most disturbing of all the deficiencies of the Islamic value system is the concept of honor.  Honor, the idea of one's image and standing in the community, is made to matter more than actual, tangible experiences.  Honor matters more than human happiness or suffering, it matters more even than human life. Hence honor killings, honor rapes, victim blaming on rape victims, etc.  The idea of honor as the highest value permeates and thus infects every area of life, causing people to act in ways that would seem horrible if, like we Westerners, the individual and their life, liberty and happiness were the highest value.  Wherever honor reigns, human rights are shunted to the back-burner.  It has always been so.  Honor is perhaps the most ironic and tragic of human delusions, for the more vigorously it is pursued for its own end, the less of it can be attained.

Caveat time: The above mentioned grievances are (among the) problems in the Muslim world, but that is not to say these are problems in all Muslim countries, or among all believers in Islam.  The data varies from issue to issue, and country to country.  They are widespread enough, however, that millions and millions of people all over the world are being harmed by them.  Can one be a Muslim and value Western principles, like freedom of speech, equality of the genders, and skeptical inquiry?  Well, one can call themselves a Muslim while doing so, just as one can call themselves a Christian while believing in science, but the sets of ideas are, almost by definition, antithetical.  They can only coexist if one or the other is diminished to allow the accommodation.

There are some who would dispute these faults in Islam.  There are undoubtedly those genuinely - and astoundingly - unaware of them, but the greater part seek to deny, obfuscate, or minimize through comparison.  It is pointed out with a sort of gleeful smugness that Christianity and the West have committed sins of their own (inquisitions, crusades, pogroms, etc). This is true.  No intellectually honest person is saying we should exclusively criticize Islam, and the charge that critics single them out is not only untruthful, but aids in shutting down discussion.  What we're saying is that we should criticize bad ideas wherever we find them, including Islam.  It is not the purpose of this piece to convince the reader of the problems of Islam, nor is this a research paper.  I encourage everybody to inform themselves on the doctrines of Islam, geopolitics, and current events on their own, and I am confident that an objective and reasonable analysis thereof will yield similar conclusions to my own.

The question (and part of the problem) is, why do many Westerners on the political left avoid or even demonize the criticism of Islam?  I have examined this issue somewhat already in a few of my pictures, but I feel the topic warrants another look.  Part of the psychology behind this behavior stems ultimately from white guilt and what you could call "West guilt."  Liberals have an acute - and justified - awareness of their own flaws, and those of their nation or ancestors.  We Western liberals look back on the Christian Dark Ages, the Spanish Inquisition, The Crusades, witch-hunts, pogroms, imperialism, slavery, the genocide of indigenous peoples and the rape of their lands, among others, and we do not avert our eyes, minimize or explain them away, or try to whitewash history the way conservatives are inclined to.  These things happened, and they are atrocities in every sense of the word.  They are shameful blemishes on the history of the West, and we must never forget them, nor fail to learn from past mistakes.  The issue arises when those on the left, in an act of overcompensation in an attempt to "balance the scales," as it were, try to construct a figurative barrier encompassing all those who are non-white, non-Christian, or non-Western which will shield them from any criticism, scrutiny, or hostility.  Anyone not like them is automatically labelled a "victim," and victims are never to be criticized, because according to their line of reasoning, criticism of anyone who is (or is perceived to be) a minority group, a foreigner, or "oppressed," amounts to irrational hatred, bigotry, and racism.  If Southern Baptists by the thousands began cutting off the clitorises of little girls, Western liberals would shriek their throats bloody.  The tsunami of op-eds, protests, boycotts, marches, and media pressure would be overwhelming and relentless.  When African and Middle Eastern Muslims by the millions engage in this very same activity, many Western liberals, even Western feminists, are deafeningly silent.

Part of the problem is also the well-meaning, but disproportionate and misguided sense of tolerance, respect, diversity, and multiculturalism that the left embraces.  These are important and moral values, but as we have seen, when misapplied they can be just as harmful as the bigotry they purport to remedy.  When you tolerate intolerance in others, when you respect that which is not deserving or is not earned, when you celebrate diversity and multiculturalism blindly for its own sake, even when it's detrimental, you have entered into folly.  This is most evident in Western Europe, specifically Scandinavia.

There is another factor, however, one that in my opinion does not get nearly enough attention, and that is the racism of the left.

Whatever one's political ideology, philosophy, or outlook on life, one cannot look at Islam and the Muslim world and honestly see a happy picture.  Regardless of one's opinion on the root causes of these problems, the problems are there for all to see.  They are myriad, glaringly obvious, their effects deep and far-reaching.  The blindest, most willfully ignorant among us cannot fail to notice this, nor do they agree with these ideologies.  No Western liberal would engage in honor rape, or throw acid in the face of a schoolgirl, or forbid their wife from leaving the house without a chaperone, nor would they condone any of these behaviors, or even subscribe to an ideology that even left room open for it.  Their decision not to criticize these ideas is, in large part, shaded by race, ethnicity, and religion.  Whereas conservatives seem to have the predisposition to look down on others (those in out-groups), with a sense of disdain, liberals are similarly disposed to look down on these same people, but instead with a sense of condescending pity.  There is an implicit belief underlying much of liberal "respect" and "tolerance" that the peoples or "victims" in question are in some way less sophisticated, less civilized, less intelligent, and less reflective than the rest of us, that they are not able to look inwards at themselves the way we are, that they are not capable of reforming themselves, that they cannot "handle" criticism.  They are viewed almost as animals, to be not to be harmed or mistreated by us humans, but also not to be held accountable or challenged to better themselves.  Indeed the prospect of criticizing Islam and demanding that they demand more of themselves is half expected by the Western left to evoke an apish backlash of violent savagery.  Best just to leave them alone in their natural habitat with the rest of the animals.  Best to cave in to their backwardness and accommodate their primitive ways, because they aren't capable of being civilized like us.

This is bigotry, plain and simple.  This is the racism of the left, the soft bigotry of low expectations.  We treat Islam with kid gloves not out of respect, but because we view them as children unable to recognize their faults and better themselves.  We view them as a lost cause to be kept at bay through placation.  True respect is telling someone when they are wrong.  True respect is telling someone the truth, even when they don't want to hear it.  The West is hardly perfect, and far from blameless, but that shouldn't mean we must sit on our hands and watch in silence as a quarter of the world wallows in a Dark Age.  Islam needs a reformation, and its people deserve a reformation.  They are human beings, no different than we are, fully capable of paradigm shifts and societal and cultural evolution, but it can only occur through questioning, skeptical inquiry, and criticism.

I therefore call on my fellow liberals to stand up for our liberal values, to be intellectually honest, and to have enough respect for your own fellow humans to tell them the truth, and to expect from them the same as you would expect from yourselves.

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For the past few years I've set myself a reading challenge which I've found both enjoyable and motivating.  In 2014, I'm pleased to say I have read 70 books, exceeding my initial goal of 60. I would here like to share with you some of the highlights. You can see them all here.   See also 2015 and 2016


"Pure Drivel" by Steve Martin.  I love highbrow humor. Nothing makes me feel superior like laughing at a Schrodinger's Cat joke.

"Last Words" by George Carlin. Carlin's autobiography, great reading.

   Ancient Works

"The Ramayana"
by Valmiki. I've been trying to read more mythology and ancient literature from other cultures, and I found this epic Hindu tale really enjoyable. It may be 2,500 years old, but it doesn't read a day over 500, trust me.

"The Art of War" by Sun Tzu. A interesting exploration of strategy, military or otherwise. As relevant today as it was in ancient China.

   Science Fiction

"Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus" by Orson Scott Card.  An organization in the future known as Pastwatch, which has technology to see into the past, tries to alter the course of history.  Putting aside Orson Scott Card's crazy views in his personal life, the man's an unbelievable writer.  Nobody writes character driven, emotionally powerful science fiction better than him. Very highly recommended.

"Earth Afire"
and "Earth Awakens" By Orson Scott Card.  These are books two and three in Card's prequel trilogy to his famous "Ender's Game," and they chronicle a very diverse and engaging cast of characters during an alien invasion.


"Words of Radiance" by Brandon Sanderson.  This is book two of Sanderson's Stormlight Archive series. He's the best fantasy writer I've ever read.  His worlds are unique and original, with great characters and stories. This is my favorite book of 2014.

"Steelheart" by Brandon Sanderson.  In a world filled with evil superheroes, a band of human rebels tries to take out Steelheart, who rules over what used to be Chicago with an iron fist. Awesome spin on superhero stories.


"No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the US Surveillance State" by Glenn Greenwald.  I literally couldn't put this down. A riveting insider's account of the Snowden story, a chilling, mind boggling look at the secretive abuses of the governments of America and its allies, a scathing critique of the establishment media, and a passionate, well reasoned case for privacy rights.

"A Religious Orgy in Tennessee: A Reporter's Account of the Scopes Monkey Trial"
by H.L. Mencken.  A collection of newspaper articles written by Mencken while covering the infamous case about teaching evolution in schools.  Absolutely dripping with contempt for bullshit and superstition.

"Treatise on the Gods" by H.L. Mencken.  This is Mencken's exploration on the origin, evolution, and nature of religion.  Starts off a little slowly, but picks up steam as it goes along, culminating in the scalding rants and barbed diatribes he's known for.

"What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East" by Bernard Lewis.  Historian Bernard Lewis writes about the elaborate history of Islam and its relationship with the West. This is not biased pro or anti Islam. I couldn't put this down, and learned a lot from it.

"Thomas Paine's Rights of Man: A Biography" by Christopher Hitchens.  The brilliant life and achievements of Paine told by the brilliant Hitchens. 'Nuff said.

"Political Ideals" by Bertrand Russell.  This elegant little treatise on politics, government, progress, and society is logical, sensible, and piercingly insightful.  It's a testament to the depth of Russell's vision and wisdom that this nearly century old book rings as true and relevant as though it were written today.

"A People's History of the United States"
by Howard Zinn. 
Contrary to the whitewashed history we learn in school, always deferential to authority and the powerful, Zinn tells the tale of the United States from the point of view of the powerless. The native, the slave, the black, the woman, victim, demonstrator, the poor and downtrodden. This should be mandatory reading for all Americans.

"Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion"
by Sam Harris. 
Waking Up is Sam Harris' most personal book to date, a semi-autobiographical exploration of consciousness, the sense of the "self," meditation, psychedelic drug use, and other spiritual and contemplative practices.  Harris eloquently and compellingly argues and describes how it is possible to experience feelings of oneness with the cosmos, self-trancendence, universal love and compassion, and a state of simply being, without recourse to religious faith or intellectual dishonesty.

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I've been meaning to write this for a while, since it's a topic that not only doesn't go away, but only seems to continue worsening. We've all seen the stories, the statistics, read the articles, had the discussions, and in many cases, experienced the injustice firsthand. The overreach of authority from law enforcement, the abuses of power, the abject failures of judgement that occur around America on a daily basis are a national disgrace. In short, we are becoming - if we aren't already - a police state. We are becoming a country where the law shoots first and asks questions later, a country where you are guilty until proven innocent, and a country where the worst crime you can commit is to flout the authority of a cop, to disrespect him/her, especially in front of others. This "crime" has become a capital offense, one where the police officer is all too often the judge, jury, and executioner. This has to stop, and America has to demand that it stops. These are the reforms which I believe are necessary to restore and maximize our rights, our freedom, liberty, safety, and civil rights, without sacrificing order and the effective enforcement of laws:

1. All law enforcement officers must be subjected to strict psychological testing before they can be hired and outfitted with weapons.
It is my understanding that many cities, towns, and municipalities do require some form of psych testing, though the rigorousness and use likely varies from area to area. The process currently in place is simply insufficient. We are allowing too many individuals who harbor racial prejudices, have anger management problems, or who have sadistic, megalomaniacal, or sociopathic tendencies to become police officers. We need to ensure that every applicant undergoes a battery of tests and evaluations designed to detect even the slightest traces of harmful or psychological issues.

2. The demographic makeup of any given police force should be more proportional to the community it serves.

This is not to say that it must be exact, but if there's a town that's 90% black, with a police force that's 90% white, that raises a red flag. The police need to be a part of the community they serve, not an outside or occupying force. In some high-crime (and typically poorly educated) areas comprised predominantly of one racial/ethnic group, there may be some ingrained wariness and hostility toward out-groups, which can needlessly contribute to violence escalations. Hopefully we will one day live in a truly equal and post-racial colorblind society, but we are sadly a long way off from that.  To clarify, I am not suggesting affirmative action or quotas, but rather a more robust attempt to draw recruits and applicants from within the same town as the police department in question, and to require that officers be residents of the same town they serve as well.  In towns/areas of mostly one racial/ethnic group, these measures would generally result in an increase in officers of that same group.

3. We must demilitarize the police.

In recent years, surplus or decommissioned military equipment from our excursions abroad have been made available to local police forces around the nation - at little to no cost - provided one thing; that they find a use for them. So, we're giving tanks, machine guns, grenade launchers, and other military grade weaponry to people who are already predisposed to authoritarianism and power-complexes, and telling them they can only keep their new toys if they find a use for them... What could possibly go wrong? To paraphrase the American psychologist Abraham Maslow's famous precept of "The Law of the Instrument:" If the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. This arms flow from the military to law enforcement must end at once, and all existing military grade equipment received from the military should be confiscated.

4. Police must be trained to deescalate situations without resort to violence.

There are literally countless videos available on the internet of police officers who, mere moments into an interaction with an uncooperative or unruly person, rapidly resort to violence, in some cases fatal violence. Whether these officers are cowards, so afraid of every person they encounter that they jump the gun (literally), whether this is born out of laziness, or the desire to flex their authoritative muscles, or if they somehow just don't know any better, this has to be addressed. I do not have intimate knowledge of the exact situational training that police officers currently receive, I can only observe the results, and they are not good enough. Being an officer of the law is a difficult job, we know. It can also be a very dangerous job, yes. But police officers are not drafted, they were not swept up by press gangs and conscripted into service against their will. They chose this profession, one that grants them extraordinary powers and authority, and with that comes responsibility. Police must be trained to use violence only as a last resort. Cops also have an array of non-lethal weapons at their disposal, night sticks, mace, and tasers, among others. If violence must be used, every attempt must be made to subdue people without killing them. No one would begrudge an officer for shooting someone who pulls a gun on them, but shooting someone who is unarmed, simply because they are making a scene or not submitting to the officer's authority, is tantamount to murder. 

5. When a cop breaks the law, they must face actual consequences.

Too often the police break the laws they are supposed to uphold and enforce. Sometimes, this takes the form of wrongfully harming or killing someone. And far too often, we hear that the punishment given, if any, is desk duty, or a paid leave, and in certain cases unpaid leave or firing. Very rarely are police officers prosecuted, and even rarer when they serve jail time. I understand that due to the nature of the job, some additional leeway is warranted. That being said, we need real punishments for unlawful actions by cops, and it should be at least in the relative ballpark of the consequences that us ordinary citizens should expect to face, should we perpetrate such deeds. In addition, officers who cover up or fail to report their fellows must be subjected to the law as well. When you give someone power and authority with insufficient oversight and minimal, toned-down punishments, you are sending a message that they can do whatever they want.

6. Police officers should wear cameras and microphones on their person when in the field.

The best thing that ever happened for the general public against police abuses is the smart phone. An overwhelming number of police brutality cases are brought to light solely due to footage recorded with the phone of a bystander or passerby. People act differently when they know they are being filmed; they self-censor, they self-regulate, and they refrain to a degree from certain behaviors they would otherwise engage in. There are areas in the US currently utilizing body-cameras on officers, and it has dramatically reduced the incidents of force, and the number of complaints filed by citizens.… . It's time for the watchers to be watched.

What are your thoughts, stories, and ideas?

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